Science Isn’t There to Control Nature

Although I enjoy most of Jacob Bronowski’s attempts at linking science to literature and to the fine arts, can you guess what reservations I have regarding his introduction in “The Creative Process” ? (Unfortunately I could not find an online version; I have a paper-reprint of his essay which appeared in a September 1958 issue of Scientific American.)

“The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself. The discovery must be compared in importance with the invention of cave-painting and of writing. Like these earlier human creations, science is an attempt to control our surroundings by entering into them and understanding them from inside. And like them, science has surely made a critical step in human development which cannot be reversed. We cannot conceive a future society without science.”

Once we have created models that help us understand an aspect of nature, there’s nothing about the scientific approach that obliges us to control our surroundings. It’s with technology that we make such an attempt. Yes, we cannot conceive of a society without science for a couple of reasons, but neither has anything to do with manipulating nature. (1) It is highly compatible with our curious nature. Its concepts, although neither flawless nor immutable, give us a better approximation of the truth than what we would obtain from commonsense notions, wild guesses and superstition.

(2) Some of the problems created by a combination of human nature, social structures, science and technology need science as part of the solution.

But simply because we seem to gain control over nature, both out of necessity and greed, is no reason to include that characteristic in a definition of science.

Ironically, while successfully erasing the false dichotomy between the arts and sciences, Bronowski falls into the trap of imagining a new polarity. He imagines that a civilization which expresses itself mostly in contemplation values no creative activity. At the other extreme, we have Western scientists, scholars and artists whose outlook is supposedly always active.

As Bronowski points out, through metaphors artists and scientists do create unity in what is diverse. To use examples from a field that I know, in each of the 8 million known species of organisms, there are always carbon-based compounds present. Each carbon atom in those life forms can form several different molecular orbitals with other carbons, hydrogen, oxygen and other elements.  But thermodynamically the most stable arrangement consistently involves four bonds for each carbon. Now granted, it took a mentally and experimentally active approach on the part of many people to create those concepts, but now that we have them , what compels us to quickly synthesize far more compounds on a massive scale without knowing their full impact on our bodies and on the rest of nature? It’s not inherent to science.

Couldn’t we should just slow down and value knowledge more for its own sake? Should we not also express ourselves more frequently in contemplation? Can’t we look at a dead leaf and be content with knowing that when it continues to decompose in the spring, it will allow nitrates, phosphates and water to be retained by carbon-based soil a little longer and let new life recycle them? And instead of rushing to paint them or to look for more compounds in the stages of an oak leaf’s decomposition, why not extend the enjoyment of those transient moments of early morning light interacting with its frost-coated surface? In fact, the most creative people do pause more often. They do it not only for the sake of incubation but for the sake of existential pleasures.

Nature has set up a museum in the park this morning. It charges no admission and needs no curator. Ironically, after contemplating them, I could not resist the temptation to photograph them!


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