Can one appreciate the deep beauty of science, without mastering calculus, quantum mechanics or molecular genetics? I reckon the answer is yes, but I know at least one Nobel laureate disagrees with me.
Sir Harry Kroto made the following comparison during a tense press conference on Wednesday: "Try to explain the culture and the depth of Shakespeare to someone who does not speak the English language. It’s extremely difficult. When a journalist asks me to describe my research in one sentence, I get irritated and ask: ‘how much of the language of science do you know?’"
Kroto’s frustration is understandable. It is lazy interviewing to ask a scientist for a one-sentence summary of his research, especially if that research spans multiple decades and has led to a Nobel prize. But how much of an expert in organic chemistry do you need to be in order to appreciate the full beauty of a molecule like buckminsterfullerene?
I agree that a basic understanding of science helps to see why certain research is beautiful or worth doing. But Kroto went further than that. When the moderator asked Kroto whether it is possible to describe the power of imaginary numbers in words, his answer was simple and short. "No." In one fell swoop, Kroto dismissed the efforts of science communicators everywhere. To understand the beauty of science, you have to speak the language of scientists. Symbolic algebra included.
This position contrasts many of my personal experiences with science. As a young teen, I read many popular physics books about special relativity that made me look at the world with new-found wonder. My brain was tickled and excited when I first read that time passes at different speeds for two observers moving at different speeds. I fell in love with science long before I carried out a single experiment in the lab.
At the time I read these books, I couldn’t have solved an exponential equation even if my life depended on it. Thankfully, I didn’t need to. The writers who wrote these books, some of them scientists, made sure of that. They captured the power and beauty of modern physics in words alone.
I’m not saying it is easy to translate science. It is damn hard. It’s also damn hard to translate Shakespeare, while doing justice to his work. But it’s not impossible. What's more: it's vital that scientists and science communicators keep on doing it. The persons who decide over science budgets usually don’t speak scientese. It is in the best interest of science and scientists if these people learn to appreciate and understand the science for which they provide funding.
I want to make one thing clear: I am not disputing that my appreciation of relativity is different from an actual physicist's. When I listen to Beethoven’s Große Fuge, I do not experience the music in the same way as someone who plays the violin themselves. Nor do I appreciate Beethoven’s skill as a composer as much as someone who is schooled in classical music. But I can still recognize it as an impressive and important piece of work.
Kroto said a deaf person can never understand the beauty of a violin concerto. I think he is wrong:
About the Author: Lucas Brouwers is a recent college graduate who obtained his MSc degree in Molecular Mechanisms of Disease from Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Lucas blogs on evolution at Thoughtomics and tweets as @lucasbrouwers. Besides writing about science, you’re likely to find Lucas listening to electronic music with his headphones on, or cycling through the Low Countries.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Cross-posted on the official site of the Lindau Nobel Community—the interactive home of the Lindau Meetings: The beauty of Beethoven and buckminsterfullerene