Last July, physicists and physics lovers were worked into a fever pitch of excitement. They traveled from around the world to Geneva to watch a presentation of the latest evidence for the existence of the Higgs Boson, a theorized but hithero unobserved particle which – if proved real – would go far in explaining why some particles have mass.
The conclusion of the presentation roused nothing less than uproarious, unending applause and teary eyes from the audience. This cathartic event for the scientific community came to be known as a historic moment for science.
When we see the meaningful engagement involved in moments like this, it’s clear that some of the value in studying science is parallel to the value in studying humanities. As drawing conclusions and coming to understand the world may cultivate the character and intellect of the humanities scholar, the same may happen for the scientist in his or her own work.
Yet, when we ask ourselves which fields of study produce feelings like transcendent insight and catharsis, we almost never picture the sciences. Sure, we know that many scientists are smart. But we picture the humanistic individual, who devotes endless hours to Melville, Plato, Tolstoy and Goethe, as the person with the real depth and profundity.
Seeing world-class physicists weep with joy should remind us that science also produces deep insights, and these are no less meaningful or intellectually rewarding.
On some level, we all know this about science. Yet, today’s public discussion of the reasons to pursue a science or a humanities degree always ends up claiming the value for studying science or the humanities is exclusive from one another.
Science is a practical degree, we are told. It will get people jobs in this dire economy because the demand for STEM majors is continually growing. On the other end, we have no trouble believing that a French literature major is pursuing nothing but the fulfillment of his or her passions. Parents forewarn their kids about the poor job prospects of a degree in the arts. As reports that humanities departments are downsizing due to a lack of students continue, professors are publicly lamenting the impending downfall of modern culture. The arts, they seem to be implying, are what is solely capable of mending our moral fiber and cultivating the soul.
By this measure, one is left to think that the crowds shuffling in and out of the Shineman Center toil only for the sake of job security, while humanities majors are bettering themselves in a holistic sense at the expense of their career prospects. This may be true for a portion of students. But the risk of over-generalizing these reasons for choosing one field over another is disrespectful, marginalizing and discouraging to those that may have a different rationale for their choices.
In the case of science, this is an especially unfortunate consequence. The people we want going into science are those that have the passion to go beyond their nine-to-five duties and persistently work at problems for the intrinsic reward of tackling them, however difficult they may be.
When we think of all the famous scientists throughout history, we notice that none of them divorced their work from their passion, meaningful experiences and personal growth. In fact, we’ll find that they felt their scientific work was integral to their sense of personal flourishing.
We need to start talking about science in a way that features this aspect front and center, not as a potential fringe benefit of a prudent career choice. In the 70s, Carl Sagan infected the nation with his deep, yet childlike sense of wonder and enthusiasm for the mysteries of the universe. I’m happy to hear that his signature show, “Cosmos,” is being revived, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s just what we need in the 2010s: a heartfelt reminder of why it is awesome to be a science geek.