Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Dunking doughnuts and weighing souls

Few days ago I finished reading an amazing book: "Weighing the Soul - Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the bizarre". The author of the book is Len Fisher; the honorary research fellow at University of Bristol and more interestingly the winner of the Ig Nobel prize for his research into the science behind dunking biscuits and doughnuts. His first book "How to dunk a doughnut: The science of everyday life" is next on my reading list.

"Weighing the soul..." is captivating. It talks about the debates and fights that led to the evolution of some of the most important scientific ideas in today's world. Len Fisher takes the reader behind the curtains of some of the best dramas on the stage of science in the 20th century. He describes the bizarre experiments attemting to weigh the souls (of humans, dogs and rats!) and attempts to convert ordinary materials into gold. We hear about the travails of Galileo and how they may have helped bring forth some great science which finds widespread relevance today. We learn the interesting details in the efforts to understand the nature of light and electricity. Len Fisher gives the account of "battles" between two ideas proposed by scientific minds...E.g. Isaac Newton and Thomas Young about the nature of light or between Galvani and Volta about the nature of electricity... or even more interesting between the pointed lightening rods proposed by Ben Franklin and the blunt tipped ones proposed byBenjamin Wilson.

In the chapter on the nature of life, Fisher portrays the attempts to understand what life means and the clash between the mechanists (who sought to explain all life phenomena by the means of known physical laws) and the vitalists (who proposed the necessity of a "vital force" being imbued in living organisms). It is interesting to find that although the mechanists won the day... the contributions to the science made by both sides are equally valuable. Fisher brings out this point very cogently. The "battle of ideas" described by him form a backdrop to the emergence of the winning idea with each side making significant contributions to the final appearance of the winner.

Seeing this "behind the scenes" footage I realized that science is afterall a human enterprise... and it comes with all the usual baggage... ego clashes, personal attacks and pitched battles for dominance. I also thought about the ridiculous "debate" going on in US these days over Darwinian evolution. The ideas that are being proposed as alternative "theories" to Darwin's evolution have been proposed before and they have lost. The vitalist proposing the necessity of a "vital force" were definitely influenced by their religious beliefs. They lost the battle of ideas not because they were not good scientists... they lost the battle of ideas because they could not provide any testable, measurable evidence of their idea... experimental evidence which forms the bedrock of science. They lost because the opposing idea could be tested, could be observed and could explain all the phenomena in question.

I guess today there is so much anxiety and fear about the idea of evolution because it seems like it is out there to remove the role of God from human life. Scientists are not out there to destroy God... but so far science has not felt the need to invoke God into the picture. Scientists are not atheists bent on destroying religion... but science has been successful to an amazing degree in explaining almost all of the things around us without invoking a God or a creator or a designer. Scientists take this success as an indicator that nature is "knowable".... that we can understand phenomena in nature by means of "laws" and "principles" and "theories" which can be tested. Some think that this "knowability" of nature is an article of faith among the scientists. But I feel there is huge degree of success to back it up.

However I cannot bring myself to disagree with one point that Fisher makes in the chapter "What is life?". In the concluding paragraph discussing about the issue of what we know about the nature of life (p163) he says...
No amount of extra scientific information is likely to resolve this issue. The argument is not scientific alone, although some scientists argue there is no point in believing something that cannot be confirmed or refuted by scientific tests. To my mind, this is committing the same fallacy as Driesch did when he could only imagine one way that an intracellular machine might function and decided this was therefore the only way it could function. The fallacy in the first case leads to a hubristic materialism and in the latter case to an equally hubristic philosophy of vitalism. The balance point of view is surely to say that any belief (such as a mechanistic view of life) that can be tested against reality should be, but that does not mean that beliefs that cannot be tested are not true.
It is clear that the difference between science and "not science" IS the difference between beliefs that can be tested and those that cannot be tested. But Fisher issues a note of caution to believers on both sides. I think this kind of balanced stance in necessary if we want to avoid the battle between science and faith that seems ever so close.

"Weighing the soul - Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre", Len Fisher. Arcade Publishing, New York. 1st U.S Edition. 2004. (ISBN 1-55970-732-1)

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