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Have You Got It In You?

rachelr's picture


 "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward". 

-Thomas A. Edison


              I have, throughout my entire life, been fortunate enough to attend liberal arts schools (with a brief stint in an all-girls Catholic prep school). In my grade school, our four-week “blocks” alternated between English, science, and history with art, math, gardening, language, and sport periods following. This education encouraged the cultivation of studies in the sciences and in the humanities, which is why as a science major I am now in my third English class at Bryn Mawr College. I have also had the good fortune to be in science classes, such as my biology course this semester, that have asked students to look at differences and similarities between the humanities and the sciences; this English class did something similar this past week when we looked at how more academic, thought-based subjects present and defend new theories and research versus the way it is done in the sciences. Often science is tucked into its own niche, set apart from other academic arenas: English, history, sociology, philosophy, et all. But is science’s often complete isolation from other academic pursuits justifiable? What makes science different, and what is a scientist?


A scientist, claims Merriam-Webster, is “a person learned in science and especially natural science.” A search for ‘science’ yields more results, but the definitions that I believe to be most accurate are “the state of knowing” and “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.” The word ‘science’ finds its origin in Latin from the word scientia, meaning ‘knowledge.’ While science is most often linked with academic arenas such as biology, chemistry, physics, psychology… (the list goes on and on) there is a ‘science’ behind everything. In addition, advances in any field require knowledge, research, progress, results, challenges, defenses, and evidence; this is not a process unique to science. Questions such as “how?” and “why?” help to explain Alexander the Great’s conquering of half the world, what an ideal life lived would be, the structure of a sentence, and the growth of cells in culture; here, science is only a piece of the puzzle of human understanding.

I would like to add a portion of a BlackBoard post that I wrote for my biology 110 lab course this past semester where I reflected on a class discussion that brought the sciences and humanities into the same arena:

“Today in lab our end session of comparing and contrasting the arts and sciences was especially interesting to me. We touched upon some similar ideas when Paul Grobstein visited Anne Dalke's English class last semester. There are so many large differences between the two and yet when you begin to split hairs, to dissect the differences and break everything down, it becomes much harder to figure out the absolute and specific differences between the arts and the sciences. I feel that sciences are indeed much more empirical, and that is the best example for me of the differences. Even the mediums for fine arts are related to the sciences (wood, hair, copper, plant matter, pigments, etc.), and science is also applied for many fine arts uses. Last year in chemistry we made copper prints as well as a solid copper plate from copper dust, something many metal works artists do to create jewelry and sculpture. In my mind, the overlapping between the fine arts and the sciences is much more extensive than is often noted, and is most likely even more complicated than I can think about and consider right now.”


            What distinguish science from other academic fields are the scientific method and the tangibility of evidence. History may take into account physical evidence such as ancient artifacts and written accounts, and philosophy may theorize on the origin of life; but only science can extract DNA from 5,000 year old fossils and trace the mutation rate of mitochondrial DNA to track human migration from Africa across the globe to South America. Science looks both forward and backwards to find an origin and a progression, and translates the skeleton of physical reality into the micro and macroscopic in order to develop an understanding of not just why something might be, but how it exists and functions, and what essential elements are a part of its existence. In other words, science looks at the whole nine yards.


            Who is a scientist? Several individuals in our class questioned Rebecca Skloot’s credentials, essentially asking the question, “Well who is she to write this book on the life of Henrietta Lacks and the science behind her cancer cells?” Besides being a biology major and an award-winning science writer, Skloot is an individual who came across information that she wanted to know more about; she did research, interviews, and collected evidence in order to better understand a past, present, and future story of both a human and scientific advancement. So is she a scientist? I won’t spend much time on Carl Sagan as I feel that we exhausted him in our past three classes and I am doubtful that it is necessary for me to prove his credentials as a scientist to anyone. So I will simply say that his contributions to the birth of the American space program and his research on planets, their conditions, and the possibility of life beyond Earth fulfill the standard requirements for the title ‘scientist.’ But was Da Vinci, an incredible artist and visionary, a scientist with his anatomical drawings and designs for what we would today call an airplane?


Is Kramer a scientist when he cracks George’s secret code using his experience and observation of George and his habits?

Kramer, Scientist?

            A scientist is anyone who asks a question and works towards finding an answer. Sagan lays out that this work to find an answer must start from the beginning of the topic, from the inception; however if we all prescribed to his theory completely there would be no scientific progress. It is true that we must understand basic concepts before we can push ourselves towards a higher understanding, whether that higher understanding be established or entirely new. However in the real world, collaboration and reinforcement is the foundation of science and human interaction, and science is a very social endeavor. For me, science connects the dots; it brings together what I observe or am told is the ‘truth,’ the ‘non-fiction,’ and a way rationalizing that fact in the order of the universe. While I consider myself a scientist and am not currently practicing a religion, I still hold that there are things that I can simply take at face value without proof. I want to maintain that balance of understanding and of faith in what I feel, though it may not be verifiable by science. How can one go further into the darkness of the unknown without a dream?


rachelr's picture

Minoring in "Anne Dalke"

I myself am really glad that I took both Literary Kinds and Non-Fictional Prose, and that I'm in The Evolution of Stories next semester with you!!! I have found so many both expected and unexpected connections between "reality," "fiction," science, and more and I'm sure that I will continue to do so.

While I enjoy English I am going to be a biology major because of my interest in continuing on to vet school. When I visited Will Franklin the other day to declare my major and concentration he commented on all my classes with you and my response was "yeah I thinking about minoring in Anne Dalke." He got a kick out of that.

Anne Dalke's picture

two cultures or one?

as you know, the question of the relationship between science and the humanities is of abiding interest to me; that's another binary (like fiction and non-fiction!) that doesn't hold water for me any more. So I'm very happy to see you mining the same terrain that will form the ground of The Story of Evolution/The Evolution of Stories next semester...

Here are the questions I'd like us to discuss when you come to your conference:

  • are the "truths or laws" discovered by science more "general" than those identified by the humanities?
  • what are your grounds for saying that the "sciences are indeed much more empirical"? do you not think that humanists rely on evidence for making their claims? do they "make things up"?
  • how much does science really try to understand not just how but "why something might be"?
  • what are the "credentials" of a scientist? (referencing Paul's story again, that we are all born scientists, experimenting w/ our first and all subsequent cries as babies....)
  • is it really "true that we must understand basic concepts before we can push ourselves towards a higher understanding"? do you think that science is best taught as a series of courses, in which each serves as a gateway to the next?
  • is science "more" of a social endeavor, more collaborative than other forms of understanding?
  • "How can one go further into the darkness of the unknown without a dream?" (I'm not sure how that final question-your final question-relates to anything that's gone before....)

    Looking forward to this discussion--