On Science and Scientists
Charles A. Sankey
October 1966

Great scientists have a common denominator, since each has contributed, often substantially, to human knowledge. They are "natural philosophers".

Each has learned things before unknown, and correlated the then new with the then old to broaden the human mind.

The tools of science are observation and language. Science is dependent for its "facts" on observation of phenomena. The only reason we think there is such a thing as science is because observations of phenomena in many, many instances have fallen into a pattern which appeared ordered or understandable to human minds, or from which predictable sequences of events or of other observations could be correctly anticipated. This is the way, and the only way, in which the whole complex of "natural law" is built.

When you first were introduced to the idea of "natural law," how was it done? Did a teacher simply state Boyle's law and expect you to accept it as completely valid because it was on the course of study? (I assure you it is anything but wholly valid.)

Or, if you are about my age perhaps you were introduced at an early age to "natural law" by the translation of the words of the Hebrew psalmist that have come down to us across the ages,

"The heavens declare the glory of God
and the firmament showeth his handiwork."

These are wonderful words that I treasure deeply but are hardly science.

Begin With Questions

I would start introducing science by asking questions questions like "Did the sun come up yesterday morning?" A stupid question like that should always get attention. Then I'd ask, "Did the sun come up this morning?" and then, "Will it come up tomorrow morning?" And then, "Why do you think so?"

The communication of any "natural law" requires that it can be stated. The most precise statement of any "natural law" usually is in the form of a mathematical statement or equation.

Never forget that a mathematical equation is simply a statement. Just because something is expressed in mathematical language, or because it comes out of a computer, is no more reason for believing it is true or false than for believing something is either true or false merely because it has been written or said.

Mathematical statements are quantitative, an essential requirement for science. They normally have greater precision than non-mathematical statements, but this does not determine their verity or non-verity.

Yet the element of precision is extremely important in science. No human observation is ultimately and absolutely precise, even within its own frame of reference. The language we call mathematics is unique in that it can convey, not merely an idea, but often the degree of precision of knowledge of the idea as well. Mathematics thus is of the essence of the universal language of science.

A Quest for Truth

The method of science is quest. We do not know, and we want to find out. If you start trying to find out by asking "I wonder why" or "I wonder how" then you are thinking as a "pure" or "fundamental" scientist. If you start trying to find out the same thing by saying "I wish that" or "I want to" then you are thinking as an "applied" or "practical" scientist. The only real difference between pure and applied science is the form in which the question is cast. Thus a scientist consciously sets his own course, and the answer he obtains can only depend on what conclusions he derives from his observations on the particular course of his own selection.

You and I like to be certain about things, to think that we are right. When you enter the door of science, old ideas of certainty crumble. To advance, we must go from the incomplete toward the complete, from ignorance toward knowledge, from error toward truth. We must be continually on our guard against the apparently obvious.

I like a story of the scientist who was driving in the country with a friend. The friend said, "Do you see that brown cow over there?" and the scientist answered, "Well, it's brown on this side."

The word "agnostic" has been given connotations of disrepute, but in its proper use it is an excellent word with an excellent meaning. It says very simply and sincerely, "I do not know."

Intelligent Agnosticism

The very existence of science is an intelligent agnosticism. This is not, ten million times not, a denial of any phase of reality, natural or spiritual. It is a statement of a quest. The arms over the portal of the realm of science bear as its motto Browning's words, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

For science, as we know it, is an agnostic faith in the concept of order. To define this concept of order, let me quote from Robert Ardrey's remarkable and controversial "African Genesis".

Order is the primary concern of that part of the Universal Cosmic Management whom Ardrey calls "the Keeper of the kinds." Ardrey writes,

"You may sense his presence in a star-scattered sky as silenced you stand on a lonely hill ...
You may sense his presence in the kind of matter called helium, that has always and will forever behave according to the rules and regulations of helium ...
You may sense his word in the second law of thermodynamics or the patterned behavior of brook trout in a clear New Zealand pool ...
You may find his word in the forms of cities and symphonies, of Rembrandts and fir trees and cumulus clouds.
You may read his command in the regularity of turning things, in stars and seasons, in tides and in striking clocks ...
Where a child is born, or a man lies dead ... there see his footprints, there and there."

The Einstein Contribution

What happens during a career in science? In the year I was born, Einstein published the equation relating mass and energy which is today the basis of many computations of vital interest. This equation is E=mc² or, in words, energy and mass are interconvertible at an exchange rate given by the square of the velocity of light. That equation, with its fantastic possibilities for advancing knowledge and for good or evil, dates my era.

Before I went to the university, I was relatively unaware of three giant strides which were so to alter the then-known that the now-known appears as a different landscape. The new landscape is, in some respects, more complex, but it is much more closely integrated.

First, need I remind you that radioactivity has so enlarged and correlated chemistry and physics that they now are substantially a single discipline; that military science has been revolutionized; that in medicine, diagnoses, treatments and cures which would have been miraculous before my lifetime have become commonplace; that geology has a new meaning and authority; that man's ability to move under the sea, on land and water, in the air, and in that great hinter region we call space, is acquiring a new dimension of feasibility and speed; that astronomy and cosmology have grown almost beyond the limits of our conceiving.

The second giant step was the quantum theory. The mathematics are not for consideration here, but the idea of an indivisible unit or atom of energy, a package of energy that cannot be divided, which either is or is not, has revolutionized our thinking as to what occurs in nature.

Quantum Theory Always Present

Each time anything gets done, any time anything is communicated, the quantum theory is there, whether you know it or not. All electronics, much optics, the whole science of measurement, of communication, of action, is involved, and the unity of science is again demonstrated when a single principle pervades the whole.

The third giant step was relativity. Have you ever seen Einstein's final equation? It is
  a=(M k)/ 4 pi r²
or, in words, the radius of the universe is determined by and is proportional to the mass of substance contained in such universe. The mathematical derivation is complex and very difficult to comprehend. The final idea is unified and simple.

But the really important thing about Einstein's achievement was that his model of the world was not a machine with man outside as observer and interpreter. The observer, that is, man or man's instruments, is part of the reality observed. Just as our senses bring messages which are shaped in our minds to what is reality for us, so Einstein's theory recognizes that every observation is shaped by the observer and that this shaping is a part of the essential stuff of any scientific knowledge which we ever have. In this, all of science is unified.

There are at least three more giant steps well into the making now. The first of these lies in advancing knowledge of the chemistry of life. Recently I was invited to attend the 50th anniversary celebration of the National Research Council of Canada. It is significant that two of the four great lectures given during these ceremonies were Dr. Crick's of Cambridge considered explanation of "The Genetic Code" and Dr. Barr's of London, On- tario, fascinating summary of "The Sex Chromosomes in Evolution and Medicine."

A Scientific Breakthrough

The chemical synthesis in a laboratory of the tobacco mosaic virus was a breakthrough of tremendous impact, much more striking than that of Wohler about a century ago. By his synthesis of urea from exclusively inorganic substances Wohler smashed the then artificial barrier between inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry. This barrier had been raised in the belief that chemicals synthesized by life processes were of a different category and therefore subject to a discipline different from those synthesized from inani- mate substances.

It now is obvious that things with properties of life, e.g., with the property of reproducing themselves, have been and can be made in a laboratory. Again, the virus of poliomyelitis can be prepared as a pure crystalline chemical compound, each crystal of which is as deadly as the next. Each day we learn more about the chemical structure of living tissues. Here is a giant step well in the making.

A second giant step now gaining fantastic momentum is the science of computation. Work which would have taken thousands of man-hours in my university days is being done in a few seconds by machines with unthinking but unforgetting memories. But the real giant step is the programming of machines so that they make choices, so that they select preferred paths, so that they don't repeat "mistakes" ; in other words, so that they think.

Men and Machines

But I still am old-fashioned enough, or pre-indoctrinated enough, to hold that we, you and I, are not machines. Path selectors or decision makers we are, but we are not mere calculators of odds, we do repeat mistakes, and we have significant other differences as well.

The future use of machine knowledge and machine thinking raises concern for the kind of world in which our grandchildren will live. I still think that you cannot set up beauty as a program, or goodness, or truth (other than the type of truth characterized by a dictionary or a hand-book), or happiness. But some of my young friends are not so sure and they may be right.

The third giant step now going on could be called the Chemistry of Mind. Here is a field in which I am almost wholly ignorant. But I am convinced that knowledge of mind-stuff, of the thinking processes, of the mental mechanism of decision making, of thought management, is rapidly increasing, and will continue to increase, with all the danger of a "Brave New World" that this implies.

And then of course there are giant steps just starting. Dr. Libby, now of the University of California, spoke at Ottawa on "Space Chemistry." He reduced this to chemistry under one of three essentially" non-terrestrial conditions: (1) reactions in an inexhaustible very high vacuum, (2) chemistry under intense ionizing radiations (from which we are shielded by our atmosphere), and (3) chemistry under extremely high pressures, say from a few million pounds per square inch up. Under such conditions, many solids compress into a new state of matter with unique properties.

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?"

Aspiring Minds Needed

The scientist of the future, as of the past, must have an aspiring mind. Christopher Marlow put these words in the mouth of Tamberlaine:
"Nature that fram'd us of four elements,
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds;
Our soul, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous Architecture of the world;
And measure every wand'ring planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves and never rest"

Much effort will be required from him, more than in the past.

"Before the gates of Excellence, the high gods have placed sweat.
Long is the road thereto and steep and rough at the first."

But if our future scientist is to be a great scientist, there must be a framing of the scientific concept in an overall philosophy. In his wonderful Gifford lectures given over thirty-five years ago, Sir Arthur Eddington reflected on himself considering the subject of the generation of waves by wind.

He takes Lamb's "Hydrodynamics" off the shelf and reads the differential equations involved in the generation of incipient waves and of what happens as the wind velocity increases.

What he reads is beautiful in its structure, and, to the competent mathematician, beautiful in its lucidity. But then he realizes that this is only part of the story of the generation of waves by wind, and - he reads, and in his mind recites, Rupert Brooke's:

"There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies all day. And after
Frost, with a gesture, stays the winds that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance
A width, a shining peace, under the night."

The generation of waves by wind! no, I still don't think you can put that wholly into a computer.

Science and Your Future

Science will exert a profound influence on the future of man. Science, per se, is amoral, just as mathematics, per se, is amoral. The power which scientific knowledge brings may be used for great good or great evil, or perhaps just for the big bang.

We are all here together on what Barbara Ward calls "Spaceship Earth." Each of us is an infinitesimal microbe, on a tiny speck of dust revolving around a somewhat larger speck of dust in one of the too - large - a - number - to - be - comprehended dust clouds which comprise the Cosmos. How miraculous then

"Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous Architecture of the world;
And measure every wand'ring planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite."

Individual men are not and never have been equal. This is the most outrageous myth that has been foisted on homo sapiens in the name of democracy. But we are equal in one sense in our infinite smallness compared to the infinite greatness around us.

The human experiment unfolds. If the future is to be good for mankind we must enter, as Huxley has suggested, not an era of prosperity but an era of fulfilment. If our end be disaster, the Keeper of the Kinds will start again as he has often done in the past. If our end be triumph, who knows what greatness will be there?


Condensed from an address to the Torch Club of St. Catharines.