Diffractions: On Science, Emotions, and Culture (Part 1)
By Vandana Singh
22 August 2011
I once heard an older female scientist remark on a miscarriage suffered by a colleague, another scientist, who lost her baby at the end of her first trimester. "She should just think of the fetus as a bundle of cells," said the older woman, who had children of her own. She went on to elaborate that if you could be scientific about something like that, you wouldn't feel so bad.
Not long after, a woman who had been a biology major confided in me that when she felt bad about killing baby mice for a biology research project, her professor (a woman, also) said something like: "How can you become a scientist if you are going to get so emotional?"
Some time ago an advertisement for a book exploring quantum physics and consciousness landed on my desk. Unlike the New Age babble that would make any self-respecting physicist break out in hives, this book, Quantum Enigma, appeared to be a serious attempt by actual physicists to tackle the question of consciousness and to debunk the various myths that had been floated around on the subject. I teach a modern physics course for which this would be wonderful supplementary reading—but my other reason for excitement was that never before had I come across a rigorous attempt to examine the fascinating problem of consciousness from a physics perspective, one that promised not to get bogged down in vague handwaving exercises or to confuse analogies with literal truth.
Then a line from the ad caught my eye. It was a quote from historian of science Jed Buchwald:
Physicists . . . have long had a special loathing for admitting questions with the slightest emotional content into their professional work.
In an accompanying letter, authors Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner seemed to imply that discussions of consciousness were "embarrassing" to physicists because of the connection to human emotion.
So here it was again. Science, and emotion, apparently mutually exclusive.
My own experiences in this matter are mixed. When I was growing up in India I did come across the notion that the content of science was free of the emotional baggage that humans carried around with them. However I don't recall putting my emotions away before entering a class or a lab. Of course I did go to an all-women's undergraduate institution at Delhi University, but in the two years of working toward my Master's degree, where there were men as well as women, there seemed to be no covert or overt attempts to check your emotions in at the door.
Were my encounters in the U.S. anything to do with modern Western mainstream culture's fear of sentimentality? One sees this reflected in some kinds of Western literature as well, where anything remotely sentimental might be regarded as purple prose. Indians are a highly emotive people in general (as exemplified by the carefree, almost wanton emotional content of Bollywood movies) so perhaps my perception was the result of a cultural misunderstanding.
But consider this famous quote from Einstein:
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
First, he's being sentimental/emotional, and second, he's talking philosophy. Of course in Einstein's day philosophical questions were discussed without reservation—in fact they were the center of much of the debate about the interpretation of quantum physics. Physicist Lee Smolin, in his book The Trouble with Physics (a compulsive read), bemoans the fact that since that era physicists have been encouraged to "shut up and calculate" rather than discuss physics in a broader human context. Practical considerations overtook the search for truth and meaning, and that is the way it has been since then.
As a physics undergraduate in India, I had, along with my friends, done my share of late-night musings on the nature of god, reality, consciousness, and the wider implications of physics. Unlike the physicists that Rosenblum and Kuttner refer to, we didn't feel embarrassed. We didn't necessarily accept one notion over another, but certainly there was no hesitation on our part in discussing such things with anybody. In general I came across a whole spectrum of attitudes among both professors and students, from the hard-core rationalist skeptics to those who had an inclusive philosophical/religious take on the subject.
There are two main stereotypes of the Western scientist: the mad scientist and the coldly logical Vulcan. One type is distanced from emotion entirely, while the other is literally deranged, with an emotional spectrum restricted to the dark pleasures of world domination. Both are usually male. In the Western perspective, science itself is emotionless, as is the universe at large, a view well expressed in the classic SF story, "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin. Reading Justine Larbelestier's excellent book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, I was struck by how overt early American science fiction is with regard to both women and emotion. In one early SF story it is only after women are eliminated that humanity (i.e. men) can found a truly scientific culture. Other stories and letters from readers of the era reveal an attitude that conflates the existence of women with emotion, and science and real science fiction with things that are emotion-free.
So some very interesting questions arise. Are only some emotions permissible in the culture of science, such as those expressed in the Einstein quote above? And is this a generational thing, related to the post-war emphasis on practical applications and the eschewing of philosophical questions? How does the culture of science differ from place to place, such as the U.S. and India? What is the connection, if any, between the paucity of female scientists and the culture of science? Is the content of science ever affected by the culture of scientific practice?
All these questions have great relevance to science fiction, but they are of wider importance as well. When I started digging into all this I didn't realize that I was attempting to unravel a very tangled skein. My journey took me from some fascinating conversations with physicists and social scientists, to head-scratching encounters with sociological jargon in academic papers, to insomnia induced by too much thinking about the nature of reality. I discuss some of what I discovered—insights, confusions, and connections—in my next two columns.