Tuesday, February 19, 2019

I/We Don't Know: A Lovely and Important Phrase

Image result for WisÃ…‚awa Szymborska

Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

Scientists and many poets are driven by the urge to know.  They love thinking about questions to which their response is "I/we don't know," which is often followed by "Let's find out." By focusing on scientists and poets I don't mean to deny that many others are driven by this need as well.

The Polish-born poet Wisalowa Szymborska received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. She gave her Nobel Lecture on December 7, 1996.  In this sparkling lecture she talked about the nature of inspiration. I choose three paragraphs to highlight but what precedes and follows these is important to tying the ends of her argument together--to learning how she got there and where she ended up.

At this point, though, certain doubts may arise in my audience. All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize. (underline added)

Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that’s absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their “oeuvre” … (Underline added)

This is similar to the way science works. The answer takes shape over time as new probes are made, new experiments are designed, new models constructed and tested until the scientist has enough evidence to convince her/him that these experiments and interpretations can be "clipped together."

Image result for question mark
Here is the lecture. And here is the Wiki entry on the life and work, the "oeuvre" of this loved and highly regarded poet. She died of lung cancer, aged 88 in 2012. I can't claim to have seen a large sample of photographs of her but most I've seen show her smoking.

The well-known British evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins gave the annual Darwin Day Lecture this year.  I'm a fan so naturally I recommend listening to the entire talk (~ 48 minutes) but I want to point out that he uses the phrase "we don't know" at about 14:15 of the lecture in which he contrasts the certainty of theology with the doubt that is the hallmark of science. Not knowing goes with the territory.

Dawkins published a very influential book entitled The Selfish Gene which changed scientific understanding of natural selection. In 2017 it was named by The Royal Society, the most influential scientific book of all time. Nature published an essay by Matt Ridley about the importance of this book to scientists and non-scientists in 2016.

No comments:

Post a Comment