Science and the Keats Connection
We have all resonated with the message of these lines at one time or another, the sense of insight and discovery is strong upon us, and the beauty of the discovery is so clear that we resonate also with Descartes’s faith that any understanding or vision that was sufficiently “clear & distinct” must come from God and therefore be true. Keats put it more beautifully, but not necessarily more truthfully. For as Peter Medawar has said, Keats’s identification of truth and beauty is absurd if taken literally, leading to that never-never land of wishful thinking. Though science cannot be built on good feelings, good feelings often come from good science. Evidence of the aesthetic component of science is seen throughout all its history up to and including the present time. A recent example from cosmology illustrates the point:
The details of supersymmetry are dauntingly complex. Yet, at its core the supersymmetry principle has the kind of compelling, abstract beauty that leads people to believe that somehow it must be true.1
Among the values of science listed by Richard Feynman, the late Nobel laureate in physics, was the “fun called intellectual enjoyment which some people get from reading and learning and thinking about it, and which others get from working in it.”2 The aesthetic appeal of discovering harmony and order in nature has always been a closely related awareness of those pursuing the scientific enterprise. I want to illustrate this association through the views of two well-known scientists who expressed their intellectual enjoyment in explicit terms. In spite of the two centuries that separated their lives, both Johannes Kepler in the early seventeenth century and Humphry Davy in the early nine- [p. 22] teenth expressed their intellectual enjoyment in religious terms appropriate to their respective cultural environments.
The religious garb of Kepler’s expressions was sincerely donned, but it hardly conceals the ecstatic enthusiasms of the intellectual delight that forms the real source of his wonder. Davy, after two centuries of scientific advance and the increased secularization of the Western world view, offered an unconventional cosmic morality where intellectual enjoyment became as much an obligation as a pleasure, the very instrument of personal salvation. It was offered with the ponderous seriousness of a dying man who believed it to “contain certain truths which . . . will be extremely useful both to the moral and intellectual world.”3
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is best known for the three laws of planetary motion that bear his name. These were developed in the first decades of the seventeenth century when the debate between the earth-centered system of Ptolemy and the new sun-centered system of Copernicus was still vigorously pursued. Kepler’s laws gave mathematical descriptions of the planetary motions with a precision far in advance of anything previously known. His fascination with mathematical harmonies long antedated the development of his laws. In 1597 he wrote to his former teacher Michael Maestlin,
Man will at last measure the power of his mind on the true scale, and will realize that God, who founded everything in the world according to the norm of quantity, also has endowed man with a mind which can comprehend these norms. For as the eye is for color, the ear is for musical sounds, so is the mind of man created for the perception not of any arbitrary entities, but rather of quantities; the mind comprehends a thing the more correctly the closer the thing approaches toward pure quantity as its origins.
In another letter to the same friend in 1599, Kepler wrote,
Those laws [which govern the material world] lie within the power of understanding of the human mind; God wanted us to perceive them when he created us in His image in order that we may take part in His own thoughts . . . Our knowledge [of numbers and quantities] is of the same kind as God’s, at least insofar as we can understand something of it in this mortal life.
Kepler’s life-work was a continuing witness of his own piety. While working on the Mysterium Cosmographicum in 1596, he wrote,
I wanted to become a theologian; for a long time I was restless. Now, however, observe how through my effort God is being celebrated in astronomy.
In later writings he frequently refers to astronomers as “priests of the Deity in the book of nature.” And again, he worships a God of nature, in nature, a God “whom in the contemplation of the universe I can grasp, as it were, with my very hands.”
In his struggle to accommodate the latest observational data of planetary positions to a sun-centered geometrical model, Kepler was required to calculate the precise positions of the orbits around the sun. When he realized that the planes of the orbits intersected at one single point, he must have known with a certainty that can only come from internal intuitive conviction, that there was more harmony here than Copernicus could possibly have known. Geometry required that any three planes must have one point in common; all other planes at whatever angles need not intersect at that same point. But Kepler had just found that in the physically real world of the planets, the planes of all six orbits share a common point, occupied by the sun itself. This fusion of geometry and physics gave substance to his belief that the sun was the physical cause of planetary motion. Though Copernicus could ask with a sense of cosmic harmony and plausibility where else would one place that great light giver, the sun, but in the center, Kepler’s calculations had now defined the center with a quantitative precision that Copernicus could hardly have dreamed of.
As Gerald Holton long ago pointed out, Kepler failed in his effort to create a physical astronomy; his sense of solar causation of planetary motion was quantitatively inadequate. “Despite his protestation, Kepler was not as committed to mechanical explanations of celestial phenomena as was, say, Newton. He had another route open to him.” That route, of course, was largely mathematical, but with more than a modicum of physical identity as well, as we have just seen. Though he could not accurately describe how the sun moved the planets, its unique geometric location made its role as physical cause nonetheless inescapable. Kepler’s laws were in accord with observation to a degree of precision previously unexperienced in astronomy, but they also retained the ancient aesthetic faith in a constancy in the heavenly motions, which Kepler now found in the areal velocity in elliptical orbits. It was no longer the speed of the planetary motion on a circular orbit that was con- [p. 23] stant, as Plato had established, but the area of their radial sweep that is constant even while conforming precisely to the observed appearances. And the equal area law is focused on the sun which lies at its unique place in the heavens. Though his physical astronomy remained quantitatively incomplete because he had no explanation of how the sun caused the planets to move, Kepler could accept that, with the recognition that his contribution was perhaps only the latest in an on-going progression of knowledge and understanding:4
I have thought it worthwhile, in passing, to tweak the ear of the higher philosophy. Let it ponder the question whether the almighty and provident Guardian of the human race permits anything useless and why, like an experienced steward, He opens the inner chambers of His building to us at this particular time. . . . Or does God the creator . . . lead mankind, like some growing youngster gradually approaching maturity, step by step from one stage of knowledge to another? (For example, there was a period when the distinction between the planets and the fixed stars was unknown; it was quite some time before Pythagoras or Parmenides perceived that the evening star and the morning star are the same body; the planets are not mentioned in Moses, Job, or the Psalms.) Let the higher philosophy reflect, I repeat, and glance backward to some extent. How far has the knowledge of nature progressed, how much is left, and what may the men of the future expect?5
Behind his cloak of genuine piety, one senses Kepler’s delight with the realization of these harmonious mathematical relationships. By creatively manipulating the values of the angular speeds of the planets, Kepler was able to express their ratios in musical form, a true music of the spheres. Almost four centuries later his enthusiasm is still infectious.
By the end of the seventeenth century, as we all know, science had become a significant activity in western Europe with the formation of permanent scientific societies and regularly published journals. Even as the new activity was attacked for its impious investigation of God’s secrets, it had generated a pattern of defense already visible in Kepler’s position. Natural theology based chiefly on the argument that order in nature was a manifestation of divine design, became a major component of much scientific and theological writing. Intellectual delight became disguised as piety, whether deliberately or unconsciously. But there appears no reason to doubt that discovering nature’s ways was a good-time activity.6
Scientific writings in the two centuries between Kepler and Davy furnish many expressions of the intellectual delight in their activity, more often than not given a pious gloss.
THOMAS HOBBES (1588-1669) With Thomas Hobbes “glorying” becomes almost a technical term: “Joy, arising from imagination of a man’s own power and ability, is that exultation of mind called glorying,” he says, in Leviathan, and in another passage he speaks of a “perseverance of delight in the continual and indefatigable generation of knowledge.”7
JOHN LOCKE (1632-1704) The pursuit of truth is a duty we owe to God . . . and a duty we owe also to ourselves.8
RICHARD BENTLEY (1662-1742) All bodies were formed for the sake of Intelligent Minds: As the Earth was principally designed for the Being and Service and Contemplation of Men; why may not all other Planets be created for the like uses, each for their own Inhabitants who have Life and Understanding.9
GEORGE SAVILLE (LORD HALIFAX) (1633-1695) The struggle for knowledge hath a pleasure in it like that of wrestling with a fine woman.10
STEPHEN HALES (1677-1761) We have here an instance, that the study of natural philosophy is not a mere trifling amusement, as some are apt to imagine: For it not only delights the mind, and gives it the most agreeable entertainment, in seeing in every thing the wisdom of the great Architect of Nature: But it is also the most likely means, to make the gift of kind Providence, this natural world, the more beneficial to us, by teaching us how, both to avoid what is hurtful, and to pursue what is most useful and beneficial to us.”11
The searching into the works of Nature, while it delights and inlarges the mind, and strikes us with the strongest assurance of the wisdom and power of the divine Architect, in framing for us so beautiful and well regulated a world, it does at the same time convince us of his constant benevolence and goodness towards us.12
GEORG ERNST STAHL (1660-1734) But how enormously attenuated and subtle material becomes through the movement of fire is shown by experience, which furnishes a field for thought and which also delights us.13
COLIN MacLAURIN (1698-1746) The objects of nature . . . constitute the supreme object of the speculations of a philosopher; who, while he contemplates and admires so excellent a system, cannot but be himself excited and animated to correspond with the general harmony of nature.14
PIERRE SIMON De LaPLACE (1749-1827) Astronomy, from the dignity of the subject, and the perfection of its theories, is the most beautiful monument of the human mind — the noblest record of its intelligence. Seduced by the illusion of the senses, and of self-love, man considered himself, for a long time, as the centre about which the celestial bodies revolved, and his pride was justly punished by the vain terrors they inspired. The labour of many ages has at length withdrawn the veil which covered the system. And man now appears, upon [p. 24] a small planet, almost imperceptible in the vast extent of the solar system, itself only an insensible point in the immensity of space. The sublime results to which this discovery has led, may console him for the limited place assigned to the Earth, by showing him his proper magnitude, in the extreme smallness of the base which he made use of to measure the heavens. Let us carefully preserve, and even augment the number of these sublime discoveries, which constitute the delight of thinking beings.15
Humphry Davy’s “Vision”
Humphry Davy (1778-1829) is remembered today chiefly as the discoverer of sodium and potassium, for demonstrating the simple nature of chlorine, and as the inventor of the miner’s safety lamp. In his own time he was recognized as the world’s outstanding chemist and much admired lecturer on science for general audiences at the Royal Institution in London. Without formal education beyond the age of sixteen, Davy was free to create a philosophy that reflected contemporary thought in a uniquely personal way. Even before he had given his first lecture there, the Royal Institution seemed to him to have “the capability of becoming a great instrument of moral and intellectual improvement.” Throughout the dozen years that he lectured there, his most persistent theme was that of encouraging his largely privileged audiences to become patrons of science, their rewards would be the intellectual enjoyment that would come with their larger and brighter vision of the order and design in nature. Shortly after his arrival in 1801, he asserted in an introductory discourse to a series of chemical lectures that,
The quantity of pleasure which we are capable of experiencing in life appears to be in a great measure connected with the number of independent sources of enjoyment in our possession. In considering the relations of the pursuit of chemistry to this part of our nature, we cannot but perceive that the contemplation of the various phaenomena in the external world is eminently fitted for giving a permanent and placid enjoyment to the mind. For the relations of these phaenomena are perpetually changing; and consequently they are uniformly obliging us to alter our modes of thinking. Also the theories that represent them are only approximations to truth; and they do not fetter the mind by giving to it implicit confidence, but are rather the instruments that it employs for the purpose of gaining new ideas.16
Davy continued to express the joys of intellectual understanding throughout his public career, as well as formulating new expressions in his private notebooks:
What is the end of our existence if it be not to investigate the wisdom of creation; to understand the works of God; to increase in intellectual power, to form the moral law upon an extended view of society, to enjoy the sublime pleasures of reason and imagination. As the eye has been made to be delighted with the forms of beauty, the ear with sweet sound; has the understanding, the peculiar attribute of man, no objects of delight, no enjoyments? Yes, it is the discovery of truth, the contemplation of the universe, the sublime pleasure of understanding that which others fear and of making friends even of inanimate objects.17
I hardly know which we ought most to rejoice at — the progress that has been made in natural knowledge, or the progress that is to be made. If a limit could be obtained, if we could rest satisfied with what is known, how great a source of activity, profit, and pleasure, would be destroyed. And we cannot be too grateful for that wonderful constitution of the external universe, by which it is rendered an inexhaustible source of interest to the inexhaustible human mind; by which it is admirably adapted to keep awake that happy curiosity, which is a constant germ of improvement; that noble kind of ambition which continually tends to exalt the intellectual being; that flame of life, unquenchable even in the fountain of knowledge.18
In the book written during his final illness in 1828-1829, Davy elevated the theme of scientific progress and pleasure (treated so frequently in his public lectures) to an entire moral cosmology. It was published posthumously as a collection of dialogues titled Consolations in Travel, or The Last Days of a Philosopher. In “The Vision” he drew on the eighteenth-century traditions of the plurality of inhabited worlds and the great chain of being to create the frame for an ultimate conjunction of all immortal souls with God, whom he called the “infinite intel- [p. 25] ligence.” Life is everywhere in the universe; the spiritual essences, like the material bodies they inhabit, are infinitely varied; they are indeed “parts more or less inferior of the infinite mind.” Each of these souls or monads, as he variously called them, carried with it from one material embodiment to another, “only the love of knowledge or of intellectual power, which is in its most perfect development, . . . the love of God.”
Each soul or monad is in a probationary state, its reward or punishment determined by how it has used its intellectual power in that embodiment. When its intelligence has been nobly applied toward the increase of knowledge of the world and to the application of that knowledge benevolently, and “in developing and admiring the laws of eternal intelligence,” the monad will be rewarded by possessing in the next embodiment a greater capacity to receive sensory impressions, and perhaps to dwell on a more intellectually stimulating planet, such as Saturn with its rings and many moons. But if the intellectual power is used vaingloriously, or in idle curiosity, “the being is degraded, it sinks in the scale of existence. . . .” But ultimately all the life in the universe must rise through all the forms of beings “before the consummation of things.”19
In Davy’s cosmic “Vision,” intellectual pleasure is both the motivation and the moral reward for the pursuit of scientific understanding. Its significance for Davy can be measured by the elaborateness of his scheme of justification.
I suggest that the fundamental motivation for doing science is simply that there is a very real intellectual enjoyment in the activity. That kind of fun surely is not unique to science and no doubt chess players get the same kind of thrill and excitement from solving problems of their game. The bounds of nature are much broader than those of the chessboard and the rewards seem a bit nobler. It seems likely that all of us have the potential for that kind of intellectual fun.
If intellectual pleasure is not unique to science, it is nonetheless a common and perhaps necessary ingredient of that activity. But science has become such serious business today, it not only drives our economy through its contribution to technology, it increasingly has been accused of ignoring its social responsibility, and we expect it to solve our social problems. If intellectual enjoyment is the chief motivation of scientific activity, can science survive under all these burdens? To justify the pursuit of science as fun now seems frivolous. In earlier times the fun had to be disguised as piety; today it has to claim social responsibility.
Let us recall the words of Richard Feynman who stated that intellectual enjoyment of science “is an important point, . . . not considered enough by those who tell us it is our social responsibility to reflect on the impact of science on society.”20 Certainly scientists must be cognizant of their social responsibility, but the social disposal of the products of science in our system is a political responsibility of the citizenry. It does not belong primarily to science. If the burden assigned becomes too heavy and science loses its sense of fun, we may be in deep trouble indeed.
Copyright © 1992 by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.