Like society in general, science needs a variety of both skills and viewpoints to survive. Some of its devotees have been ingenious experimentalists; others have devised elegant theories solely from their desks. Some combine both skills and manage research teams. Many scientists, like natural philosophers of yesteryear, remain focused on providing humanity with insight into the universe. Others want to assist engineers and investors to derive more practical benefits. Since the pursuit of convenience is accompanied by costs to culture, health and the environment, we are also lucky to have scientists who focus on providing checks and balances.
We all tend to gravitate towards people with similar viewpoints, which is probably why I have always looked up to the late Isaac Asimov. He was a biochemistry specialist but abandoned a career path that would have blocked off the beautiful branches of what he called the “orchard of science.” Instead he devoted the rest of his life to science fiction and science popularization, reminding us that science’s survival also depends on generalists and educators.
Through a series of developments of absorbing lack of interest (as far as these pages are concerned), I found myself doing research on a biochemical topic. In that area of study I obtained my Ph.D., and in no time at all I was teaching biochemistry at a medical school.
But even that was too wide a subject. From books to nonfiction, to science, to chemistry, to biochemistry—and not yet enough. The orchard had to be narrowed down further. To do research, I had to find myself a niche within biochemistry, so I began work on nucleic acids
And at about that point, I rebelled! I could not stand the claustrophobia that clamped down upon me. I looked with horror, backward and forward across the years, at a horizon that was narrowing down and narrowing down to so petty a portion of the orchard. What I wanted was all the orchard, or as much of it as I could cover in a lifetime of running…
I have never been sorry for my stubborn advance toward generalization. To be sure, I can’t wander in detail through all the orchard, any more than anyone else can, no matter how stupidly determined I may be to do so. Life is far too short and the mind is far too limited. But I can float over the orchard as in a balloon.
As a voting citizen, a scientist can never isolate himself from politics. Leaders serve us well if they do their best to address a variety of society’s selfless pursuits. But it’s all too easy to pretend and deceive while in a position of power. Asimov often complained that while a good scientist will be ruined professionally by being dishonest, many politicians and businessmen thrive on purposely distorting the truth.
Having said that, young scientists should not fall into the trap of thinking that the world would be better off if power was all in the hands of scientists. Being human they can easily be biased by self-interest and shallow ideologies. The world has had leaders who had a science background, but from a utilitarian point of view, they fall on various spots on a spectrum of quality. What we need is for leaders to tap the best qualities of a variety of people. And honesty is not only the mark of a good scientist, but it’s essential in all occupations, from plumber to president. When that quality was lacking in a President, Asimov was never shy to speak out:
Asimov vehemently opposed Richard Nixon, considering him “a crook and a liar”. He closely followed Watergate, and was pleased when the president was forced to resign. But Asimov was dismayed over the pardon extended to Nixon by his successor: “I was not impressed by the argument that it has spared the nation an ordeal. To my way of thinking, the ordeal was necessary to make certain it would never happen again.”
The more we crowd ourselves on the planet, the more likely we are to communicate diseases amongst ourselves, take ourselves for granted, and stress our planet for the resources we need to survive. Asimov, who was usually very optimistic, felt strongly about this serious problem which we have mostly ignored after a surge of interest in the 1960s and 1970s.
Overpopulation is going to destroy it all… if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren’t you through yet, and so on. And in the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears.