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Seeing and Believing

The scientific method for comprehending the world.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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Bynum swims free of the fuzziness only when he reaches the Greeks, in the third chapter, and can deliver his first clear definition of science: “Thales really wanted to explain things in natural, rather than supernatural, terms. The Egyptians thought that the Nile flooded because of the gods.” In the subsequent chapter on Hippocrates, an even better opportunity presents itself to define science.  

The famous opening sentence of Hippocrates’ essay on epilepsy, “The Sacred Disease,” articulates the starting point of modern science: “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but, on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.” Bynum wants to drive that message home: “[T]he firm statement—that you can’t say a disease has a supernatural cause simply because it is unusual or mysterious or hard to explain—might be said to be the guiding principle of science.” But then he blows the opportunity: “We may not understand it now, but with patience and hard work, we can.” 

Patience and hard work are also attributes of hunters, peasants, and Benedictine monks. What sets scientists apart is their rigorous observation of natural phenomena, allowing patterns to emerge that can be expressed in abstract formulae, which, in turn, can be applied to produce identical results any time they are reapplied in identical conditions. To “do science” means to subscribe to a mindset that distinguishes scrupulously between immanence and transcendence, between the natural and the supernatural, between what is in the world as a verifiable phenomenon and what is merely felt. 

When you write for children, your definitions must be perfectly clear from the outset. A clear definition of the scientific mindset, which had its birthplace in ancient Greece and thrived in Europe as the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to lose its hold on intellectuals, is key to explaining the exclusion of most of Asia and all of Africa and South America from a history of science.  

As Bynum moves on to Aristotle, Galen, Paracelsus, Vesalius, Copernicus, and William Harvey, his writing evolves into a marvel of conceptual and verbal clarity. Yet it is the structure of this book that is his greatest achievement. He begins his second triad of 13 chapters with Bacon and Descartes, zooming in on Descartes’s insights that he had to start over again, and that he had to gain perfect clarity about the difference between matter and mind. In this second triad, Bynum moves—by way of Newton, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Maxwell, Darwin, and many others—from the mind-body split to the sighting of bacteria. Bynum begins his third triad with the discovery of the mechanisms underlying infectious diseases, and moves in a grand sweep onward to discoveries of ever-smaller particles in physics and biology, until he arrives at bosons and the molecular building blocks of genes. 

And then, miraculously, one is tempted to say, the reversal happens: Out of these tiniest of particles, one of which (the Higgs boson) is still a conjecture, the huge blueprints of life emerge, a potential “theory of everything” via string theory and the Human Genome Project—both of which have come within cognitive reach only through splitting the world into ever-smaller elements. 

This grand sweep of science, from getting to know the movements of bodies (planetary and human) to elucidating their deepest structure and tiniest building blocks, would have offered Bynum the opportunity to connect the ending to his beginning if he had started not with the triviality that “science is special” (followed by a hazy account of the Babylonians, who were “good at astronomy”), but with the razor-sharp narrative presented in the Book of Genesis. In the biblical “beginning,” the world is divided into ever-smaller units, ending in the emergence of the consciousness that names them.  

Had Bynum started with that “beginning,” he would, like Gombrich, have come full circle and achieved “an easy commerce of the old and the new,” as T. S. Eliot said. But this is a mere quibble with an otherwise stunning account of scientific progress that ought to be mandatory reading for everyone age 10 and up.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

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