What makes great works of science?

What makes great works of science?

The Social Dilemma

If science can be described as an art of observation, then its greatest works tell us something about ourselves, while laying out the sparks of genius which have advanced our understanding of the titanic forces which drive and shape the world around us.

It is this sense of inquisitiveness which Stephen Hawking said, just before his seminal work of science literature, A Brief History of Time, was published in 1988, that propelled him to “find out how the world around me worked.”

But what makes some literature and works of science stand out from others?

A sense of lyricism in the writing may be one reason, but the depiction of the most important breakthroughs in humanity mean that some works remain in the public consciousness long after their authors have parted from this world.

Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of Species are acknowledged as the most important science books of all time. They are witty and replete with the anecdotes of adventures in South America, the Galápagos and Australia, such as the accidental meal of a rare bird in Patagonia and the venerable scientist’s somewhat wobbly attempts to ride the Galapagos turtles.

Application and relevance

While any talk of great science works bandies around a handful of names: Darwin, Hawking, Einstein, Newton, Erwin Schrödinger, Carl Sagan, E O Wilson, Roy Chapman Andrews, Dian Fossey and Stephen Jay Gould, “greatness” is perhaps more interchangeable with immediate applicability in the work of a scientist or addressing modern issues.

Sometimes the most prescient works can be those that focus on the smaller picture, such as looking at science from the point of view of bias or ideology, as the works of Stephen Jay Gould have done, explained Professor Satyajit Mayor, a biologist and Director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru.

“We all pretend we do science in pursuit of an objective path. But we are humans and are influenced by different sources. If we can understand where those influences come from, we can then consider those influences in the process of scientific inquiry,” he said, citing Gould’s 1987 book Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle and his 1989 book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale because they prompt one to think about science as a human, social activity. 

But for the pandemic period, Professor Mayor cited a more recent work by David Quammen as his work of choice. This is 2013’s Spillover, which examined the prospect of a virus crossing over into humans from animals, which is precisely what happened with the Sars-CoV-2 virus which causes Covid-19.

“In his book, Quammen actually says that the next viral spillover may originate at a Guangdong market in China and then he goes on to describe an infectious agent which has characteristics that we are seeing today,” he said.

But is Spillover a great science book? Not necessarily, Professor Mayor said. 

“It is more journalistic but in terms of the pandemic, this would be the book that I am most influenced by in terms of thinking about the outbreak and how we can actually move ahead and try and build some resilient solutions,” he said.

Climate change

The idea that the most important science works currently are those which address the problems of today is something that Dr Rohini Godbole, a theoretical physicist who recently received the French Ordre National du Merite, can agree with.

“One of the most pressing problems of our age is climate change and destruction of the environment and this was really borne home to me by David Attentbourgh’s recent documentary, A Life on Our Planet,” she explained.

In the documentary, Attenborough describes the film as his “witness statement” and gives us his impression of what we can expect to see on our planet if human activity continues unchanged. The Amazon rainforest could turn into a savanna, the Arctic could lose all of its ice during summer, coral reefs could wither away, soil overuse could trigger food shortages. Taken together, these irreversible events would cause mass extinction and exacerbate climate change further. 

“Attenborough also describes how small steps in a positive direction can also multiply easily and nature can once again address the issues we have created. I think this is a powerful lesson for us,” says Dr Godbole.

For Dr Shannon Olsson, a chemical ecologist with the NCBS, the work of American biologist E O Wilson, described as “Darwin’s Heir,” resonates immediately. Wilson’s 1994 book, Naturalist, has had a formative influence on her career as a scientist.

“The book promotes the ‘half-earth movement,’ which postulates leaving half of the earth for nature. It looks at biology from the standpoint of nature itself. It proposes going out into the world and examining plants, animals and microbes for their own sake, not whether they can help us to cure cancer or whatever, but really looking at what part they play in the ecosystem and thinking about how they live their life. That was a really powerful philosophy. It presents a new way of looking at science and we need more of it, because we really need to inculcate a sense of belonging with the world around us, which we are becoming ever more disconnected from,” she said.

Antidote to hyperbole

In fact, using science as an antidote to hyperbole and unquantified claims is what drives at least one astronomer, Dr Ravinder Banyal, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), to see a lot of relevance in the works of the late astronomer Carl Sagan.

“So much about his books, including Pale Blue Dot and especially, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, clearly lays out how science functions. What is physical and what is not physical in the observable universe, and what it means to have an evidence-based belief. One immediate impact of the book is that it basically helps make objective decisions, which is so required in this post-truth era,” Banyal said.

However, Dr Banyal acknowledged that part of the appeal of Sagan’s work is that the human race is nothing truly extraordinary in the vastness of the universe. It is also what draws some people away from science.

“I think astronomy clearly illustrates how big the universe is and how small people are in comparison. In the end, however, it probably makes people more sympathetic to each other, dampening their focus on petty differences and magnifying the similarities we share.”

For Professor Gautam Menon, a Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University, the resonating works are My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, which he said drove him to want to become a naturalist. But a more recent book, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel — the biography of the mathematician Ramanujan — drives home how much of science can sometimes come with personal sacrifices. 

“Towards the end of the book, Kanigel writes of Ramanujan, knowing that he was nearing his end at the young age of 32 yet still driven to work 23 hours a day, scribbling down as fast as he could the results that mathematicians still struggle to understand today, before death could overtake him. A genius that surpasses understanding would be the best way to describe him,” Professor Menon said.

Perhaps in the end, great science works ultimately define the greatness of individual men and women who have furthered our still feeble understanding of our existence and the fine granular details which make our world.