Weekly Reflection, October 6, 2016

The philosopher William Barrett writes that science in the ancient world was patient, waiting for nature to disclose its secrets, while modern science is invasive, extracting secrets regardless of whether nature is ready to reveal them or not.

Duncan Haldane, one of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, seems to have a foot in both worlds.  In an interview, Haldane said that he and his colleagues “stumbled on” the discovery that made them laureates.  On the one hand, they used highly sophisticated instruments and techniques to penetrate super-thin and super-cold matter and uncover its mysteries – an invasive, modern approach.  On the other hand, “stumbled on” tells us that they didn’t so much extract secrets as recognize something hidden in plain sight – nature on the ancient understanding, disclosing itself in its own way, at its own time.

In the aggregate, we modern people have taken our cues from modern science. Bold, audacious, often presumptuous, we thrust ourselves into the heart of worlds not our own.  We are, across a very broad spectrum of endeavors, an invasive species.

Recent years, though, have brought forth scientists who, like Haldane, leaven audacity with humility.  They probe the natural world, but receive its disclosures as gifts rather than extractions.  Tempered, perhaps, by a sense of the limits of inquiry and of all human activity, modernity bends back toward antiquity.

John Graham