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10 September 2015

The Contagious Passion For Science

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The passion for science and a desire to share its advances with everyone are two feelings that have been evenly matched in figures such as Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan and George Gamow, some of the great science popularizers of all time.

Isaac Asimov (January 2, 1920 – April 6, 1992)

Oliver Sacks en 2009. Créditos: Steve Jurvetson

A gifted child, Asimov began his studies aged only fifteen. He became a professor of biochemistry but as soon as he had the opportunity he abandoned teaching and began his productive career as a scientific writer; he published more than 500 books, alternating between science fiction and popularization.

“There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere.”

«I didn’t want to investigate, I wanted to write,» he confessed in his autobiography. While writing science fiction he conceived the three laws of robotics that first appeared in the tale “Runaround” (1942), a story published in Astounding Science Fiction, and later developed extensively in “I, Robot” (1950).

While drafting his first piece of nonfiction, dedicated to hemoglobin, he found to his surprise «that to write an article like that took me less time and was easier and more fun than a piece of science fiction.» In 1954 his first book on popular science was published, “The Chemicals of Life”, written in just six weeks. At first his target audience was teenagers. «I think they’re the ones who most need an introduction to science. Once they’ve passed eighteen it’s more difficult to influence them,» he claimed.

Roger Penrose (August 8, 1931)

Roger Penrose, in 2011. Credits: Biswarup Ganguly

Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Oxford and expert on black holes, Roger Penrose is considered one of the scientists who has contributed most to General Relativity since Einstein. Among his many contributions to geometry and theoretical physics, in 1965 he proved together with physicist Stephen Hawking that space-time singularities (such as those of black holes) can be formed from the collapse of massive dying stars.

“There can be no intelligence without understanding.”

Penrose has also devoted much of his ingenuity to recreational mathematics and paradoxes. But it is his work on the science of the mind that has made him a celebrity in the scientific world.

In “The Emperor’s New Mind” (1989), Penrose argues that there are facets of human thought that can never be emulated by a computer. And to defend this he condenses a wide range of scientific knowledge, ranging from the Turing machine to entropy or the structure of the brain— all this with a lucidity and clarity that enable any layman to understand his texts.

Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988)

Richard Feynman in 1984. Credit: Tamiko Thiel

Feynman used to rebuke his students telling them, «Fall in love with some activity and practice it!» And he certainly led by example. A lover of physics, he helped build the atomic bomb, created a model for the weak interaction (one of the four fundamental forces of nature), undertook pioneering work in nanotechnology, and in 1965 won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum physics, which helped to understand elementary particles’ behavior.

“Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.”

And things don’t end there. In addition, the New York physicist was one of the first to propose the idea of ​​quantum computers; and he directed the commission that showed that the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 was due to faulty equipment rather than human error.

But Feynman is on this select list because he managed to infect others with his passion for physics. His teaching and communication skills are considered by many as the ultimate demonstration of his genius. His amusing classes and lectures, published and even recorded for television, continue to inspire new generations of scientists and bring the general public closer to the most complex science.

Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002)

Stephen Jay Gould, in 1982. Credit: Museum of Natural History

Considered by many the best paleontologist of the twentieth century, this renowned Harvard professor completed Darwin’s theories with new hypotheses. But he also combined research with the popularization of science.

“There is nothing that limits innovation more than a dogmatic world view.”

The book that launched him to fame was “The Panda’s Thumb”, for which he won the American Book Award. In its pages, and starting from this oddity of nature (the strange false thumb of pandas), he masterfully manages to explain the natural mechanisms of evolution.

Gould’s best strategy was always to appeal to the natural curiosity of his readers. In this way he explained the most complex concepts in biology, starting from questions such as ‘Why don’t any animals move on wheels?’ or ‘How can some flies develop legs in their mouths?’ or ‘Are zebras white with black stripes, or black with white stripes?’

George Gamow (March 4, 1904 – August 19, 1968)

George Gamow, by 1950. Credit: American Institute of Physics

Imagination without the loss of rigor were the ingredients that George Gamow used to explain relativity and quantum theory in books like “Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland” (1940), whose protagonist is a banker who attends conferences on problems of modern physics. And the complex theoretical physics seemed like child’s play when explained by this Russian scientist who had, in addition to popularizing science, spent much of his career studying the Big Bang and the formation of stars.

“So I’m just sitting and waiting, listening, and if something exciting comes, I just jump in.”

Gamow tried to ensure that the correct ideas of space, time and movement that the new science had reached «after such a long and complex investigation,» would become a common heritage which anyone could become familiar with. And for this he won the Kainga award from UNESCO. His text “One Two Three… Infinity” (1947) is still popular today, combining concepts of mathematics, biology, physics and astronomy in an original and brilliant way.

 Mary Somerville (26 December 1780 – 29 November 1872)

Mary Sommerville, portrayed in 1834 by Thomas Phillips. Credit: National Gallery of Scotland

Among women who have popularized science, British Mary Somerville ranks high. In fact, she was nicknamed the Queen of Science. Although she was a born observer, her interest in science came about almost accidentally. As a teenager, her painting teacher explained that Euclid’s “Elements would allow one to understand perspective, but also astronomy. Without hesitation she began studying Euclid on her own, and mathematics stayed with her for the rest of her life.

“Sometimes I find difficulties in mathematical problems, but my old obstinacy remains, and if I do not succeed today I approach it again the next day.”

When in 1831 the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge asked her to translate Laplace’s “Celestial Mechanics” from French, Somerville not only translated the words into English, but also transformed the complex algebra into common language. Shortly after this she wrote “On the Connection of the Physical Sciences” (1834), a book that emphasized the growing interdependence among different branches of science and suggested the possibility that there was another planet beyond Uranus— shortly before that planet (Neptune) was discovered.

Somerville dealt with great scientists like Laplace, Poisson, John Herschel, Ada Lovelace and Charles Baggage, who at that time was inventing programmable calculating machines. She was a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Irish Academy and the American Society of Geography and Statistics.

Richard Dawkins  (March 26, 1941)

Richard Dawkins, in 2008. Credit: Mike Cornwell

If there is one work essential for understanding evolution, it must be “The Selfish Gene” (1976). The first book of the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins manages to explain the role of genes in evolution, describing how they compete and simultaneously cooperate in generating biodiversity.

 “I prefer not to make a clear separation between science and its popularization.”

So clear was his understanding that research and popularization must go hand in hand, that in addition to becoming a Professor of Zoology at Oxford, he managed to be the first holder of the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the university. In an interview he explained his vocation as a science popularizer: «The wonderful scientific understanding of the world, of the universe —and in my case, especially, of life— is so immensely exciting, thrilling, poetic, that would be a great pity if someone were to go to his grave without being able to appreciate it. So I feel a tremendous desire to teach people how wonderful science is.»

Dawkins believes that the mixture of astonishment and admiration is what drives scientists to find out everything they can about how the world works. He has been a staunch defender of the idea that science provides better answers than religions and beliefs. In fact, Dawkins actively combats creationism and is considered the current main spokesperson for militant atheism.

Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996)

Carl Sagan in “Cosmos” (1980). Credit: PBS

Through the television series “Cosmos”, the astrophysicist Carl Sagan managed to convey better than anyone his wonder at the universe to 400 million people in more than 60 countries. He was a born communicator who made the world look to the sky with curiosity about galaxies, nebulas, solar systems, planets, etc. In addition to his TV success, Sagan won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction Literature for “The Dragons of Eden”.

 “After all, when you’re in love, you want to tell everybody. Therefore, I find it abhorrent that scientists don’t talk to the public about science.”

Sagan was Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University and a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the California Institute of Technology. He participated in the first mission of the NASA Mariner program to Venus, and even instructed the astronauts of the Apollo program before leaving for the moon.

A staunch defender of the search for alien life, Sagan prepared the messages (potentially understandable to any extraterrestrial intelligence) launched into space on the Pioneer 10 space probe in 1972 and on the two Voyager probes in 1977. It was also his idea that Voyager 1, at a distance of six billion kilometers, rotated its camera and took the famous 1990 photograph of the Earth known as the “Pale Blue Dot”. And he always wanted to put us in our place in the universe: «We are little beings, midway in size between an atom and a star; we are vulnerable,» he once said on television.

Oliver Sacks (9 July 1933 – 30 August 2015)

For science - Oliver Sacks in TED 2009.
Oliver Sacks in TED 2009. Credits: Erik Charlton

This doctor, neurologist and London university professor, who died last August, was an enthusiastic science writer. The books written by Sacks, the poet of neurons, explain the brain in a creative way that have captivated the public and have even trained many doctors.

 “We speak not only to explain to others what we think, but also to tell ourselves what we think.”

In his 30 years dedicated to disclosing neuroscience, three works stand out, all based on the stories of his patients, told with an undeniable literary talent. In “An Anthropologist on Mars” (1995), he describes clinical cases of autism, Parkinson’s, musical hallucinations, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. Another of his books, “Awakenings” (1973), based on a group of patients with rare cases of encephalitis, became popular when it was made into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in 1990.

But his biggest bestseller was “The man who mistook his wife for a hat” (1995). About this book one critic wrote, «Oliver Sacks begins where many psychiatric reports end… With the orchestral intensity of his prose and ideas, starting from a deep compassion, Sacks plays with our routine experiences to lead us through the wonderful adventures of the mind.»

By Elena Sanz for Ventana al Conocimiento


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