finding Tao in science

“Tang Dynasty Nobleman Wanders in the Snow” by Ren Adams

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My oldest son just finished kindergarten, and his favorite subject by far, and the favorite of many of his kindergarten classmates, was science.  This popularity of science among the kindergarteners may be partly attributable to the school’s terrific science teacher.  But I also think that the wonder that most kids feel toward the natural world and science is a fundamental, inherent, not yet “civilized away” fascination with Tao.  Many adults still have some of this curiosity and wonder, but it often seems at least half forgotten.

My own career in research is really driven by that same childlike, endless fascination with nature.  My wife and I wonder, sometimes, why I chose and continue to pursue a career in science that can be so grueling, but I think my stubborn persistence is mostly due to this fascination that is like a gravitational pull for me.

Many aspects of scientific work can be repetitive, monotonous, and annoying.  A career in science requires a high level of anxiety and frustration tolerance.  But there are times when we make an unexpected discovery, however small, or when I hear a great scientific presentation, that reminds me of why I do this.  For example, I remember hearing a talk years ago that gave me such a sense of new depth of understanding, and a sense of the possibility of even deeper understanding, that I felt almost like laughing with excitement at how cool it was.  It may sound unusual, but, at times like that,  I can feel a euphoria of understanding that is almost kinesthetic, a feeling akin to falling through space, much as Carl Sagan described the feeling of contemplating the cosmos, as I quoted in an earlier blog:  “Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height.  We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries” (Carl Sagan, “Cosmos” 1980, Random House, p. 4).  I think it is these moments that keep me going.

Dudley Herschbach, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry, has a surprising perspective on what someone needs to be a good scientist:

“Interviewer:  What do you think is the most important skill or characteristic a scientist should have?  Is it curiosity or perseverance or analytical skills or something else?

Herschbach:  All of those are important, but if you ask me to say the single most important one—certainly not unique to science—but the most important one is the capacity to fall in love.  To get excited, enthralled, obsessed with some question or problem and helplessly give themselves over to their destiny.

Interviewer:  Like the mad scientist.

Herschbach:  I don’t think it’s a mad scientist so much.  I think it’s fulfillment of human potential to experience this kind of thing in your life, to be fascinated by some questions.  It’s very much manifest in many scientists I know, but also artists and musicians.  You know how many of those people struggle.  Our society undervalues them enormously and yet they are in love with what they are doing.  That is why they do it at all costs.  I think that is the most important single thing.”

–Harvard Alumni Gazette, June, 1989

I remember when I first began working in a neurobiology laboratory, and learning about the incredible intricacy and complexity of the intracellular “machinery” of neurons.  The amazing complexity of it, and the fact that somehow it all works and somehow contributes to our mental functioning…contemplating all of this conjured up in me thoughts of “God.”  The thoughts were not of an anthropomorphized God, the creator, like a clockmaker, who created all of this with his hands.  Rather, I had the sense that whatever “God” or the Tao is, is manifested in this awe-inspiring and beautiful intricacy of nature.  Although there is a popular belief that science and religion are diametrically opposed (despite the fact that some of the great scientists of history were religious, like Isaac Newton), many theoretical physicists, such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, refer in their work to God or understanding the “mind of God.”  Whether or not a scientist is a practicing member of a formal religion, or believes in God in the conventional sense, there is something in scientific work that can conjure up a sense of mystery, of awe at nature, that feels, for lack of a better word, spiritual, because it helps one become closer to the mystery of Tao.

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

Albert Einstein – “The Merging of Spirit and Science”

“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

–Albert Einstein

“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description .. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.”

–Albert Einstein

“We know nothing about [God, the world] at all.  All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren.  Possibly we shall know a little more than we do now, but the real nature of things, that we shall never know, never.”

–Albert Einstein, quoted in “The Expanded Quotable Einstein,” Princeton University Press, p. 207

Although, as Einstein wrote, we will never know the real nature of things (“The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”), the thrill of science is that it can get us a little closer to the Tao.   I think that is why kids love it, and why some adults hold on to that childlike fascination with nature and science.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

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2 Responses to “finding Tao in science”

  1. The Rambling Taoist Says:

    I must be an inverted human specimen. As a child and teenager, I loathed science. It held no fascination for me whatsoever. When I first entered college, I thought about a degree in some subject that could turn into a career as a Forest Ranger, but soon changed my mind when I realized it meant I would have to take various forms of biology and chemistry!

    It’s only now, in my later years, that science has become an interest. Maybe I should try kindergarten again! 🙂

    • Aspiring Taoist Says:

      Ha, ha! I think having a good science teacher in kindergarten or grade school really helps! I heard one grade school science teacher say once that pretty much all kids come to his class on the first day with a lot of curiosity about nature and how it works…and his job was to not mess up that curiosity by making science boring or otherwise painful. I didn’t like all of my science classes either, hated some…but got increasingly interested in it over time..

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