“Hey you with the face made of atoms”: An Exploration of Science and the Self
A strange tension between objectivity and subjectivity haunts the study of science. Though scientific knowledge often gets a bad reputation for being presented as distant, sterile, or inaccessible, the fact of the matter is: we, as human beings, are intimately connected with the findings of science, which describe who were are, how we came to be, and how we fit in with the world around us.
In antiquity, scientists were often philosophers who detailed their observations of the natural world by embracing personal subjectivity and poetic language. In the modern era, scientists became objective specialists, and for good reason; this move toward specialization and objectivity occurred because many hands make light work. Under this theory, if each scientist becomes an expert of a specialized cog in the machine of scientific inquiry, understanding the whole clock becomes a heck of a lot easier. Before I chose to pursue writing, I wanted to study science, but after job-shadowing a micro-bacteriologist who spent his days testing semen samples for STIs like Chlamydia and Gonorrhea, I felt distanced from the study of science. I couldn’t be a specialized cog in this machine. I ached to see the whole clock, not just isolated mechanical bits.
I argue not that scientists should embrace subjectivity in their experimental work, but that we, as human beings and active learners, should not forgo our own spiritual exploration of science and the self.
When you read a scientific textbook, it’s easy to view the colorful diagram of DNA in a vacuum of white space, but this small double helix is governing your body as you read this column. Evolution isn’t merely something that happened long ago, to our hominoid ancestors, but rather is something that is happening right now, a process that affects how we came to be, who we are now, and what our children’s children will look like, act like. Atoms aren’t just little clusters floating in space, either; they literally compose you. As one of my good friends quipped: “It’s crazy that the atoms at the end of my key don’t just fly apart when I touch them to the atoms in my car door.”
There are atoms buzzing around in your face right now.
I write this to you all because Grand Valley has an incredibly high number of science majors. If you’re a science person, I’m sure you’re rationally aware that your face is made of atoms, but what I encourage is an irrational exploration of science, an introspection into your emotional connection to their world and its beauty and complexity.
A word I love which perfectly encapsulates this visceral connection to the universe is the Japanese word “yugen,” which means something like, “an awareness of the universe which triggers a response too deep and powerful for words.”
Learning about science often leaves me with a resounding feeling of yugen. This only goes to show that if you can break down the walls which separate you from your subject matter, scientific inquiry can truly be a spiritual enterprise.