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Bust of Sir William Herschel

Happy Birthday to Sir Frederick William Herschel. who was born on November 15th 1738! Ferrebeekeeper has touched on Herschel’s scientific and musical accomplishments and we have also explored his convictions concerning extraterrestrial life, but have what have we done lately to commemorate the long deceased astronomer and his contributions to human knowledge?

…other than photoshop this cake (sorry Seth)….

 That’s why we’re observing the great man’s birthday by listing a few of Herschel’s additional accomplishments (which didn’t fit in the prior, overlong post) and by making some brief comments concerning multi-disciplinary polymaths–who are rapidly disappearing in a world of myopic specialists.  Perhaps this will in some way suffice to memorialize this personal hero.

Although Sir William is principally known as an astronomer, he regarded himself as a well-rounded man of science and studied many other disciplines both in and out of the sciences.  Indeed one of his more remarkable discoveries–that non-visible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation exist–is really a physics discovery rather than an astronomy discovery (although the disciplines are allied).  However Sir William also worked in the natural sciences, and is credited with an important biological discovery.  Prior to his time, coral was regarded as a plant.  Sir William got out his microscope and made some direct observations of coral cells. He concluded that since coral cells had the same thin membranes as animal cells, the organism was an animal.  Such is of course the case and today’s aquarium docents patiently explain to first-graders that corals and siphonophorae are actually creatures (although they, cnidarians, lack central nervous systems and can’t even enjoy basic sensations, much less book-of-the-month).   Sir William was an ideal renaissance man whose intellect and creativity allowed him insights into many different fields–which segues us to contemplating the scientific community of the present.

A microscope photograph of mushroom coral (by James Nicholson)

Contrary to what we might expect, today Sir William would probably find no place in the professional sciences (astronomy, physics, biology, or otherwise).  For in the sciences, as in other realms of academia, the gownless are vehemently cast out.  Someone who spent so much time practicing oboe and composing symphonies would never be able to get through the mountain of information necessary for an unfortunately named BS degree (to say nothing about attaining the doctorate so necessary to research and publish).  

Of course it’s admirable that we train our scientists at such immense length in specialized accredited schools.  And it’s also necessary! Any freshman scientist has his head swimming with a gigantic amount of information because science itself has grown.  Each branch of science is broader and wider and deeper (and other dimensions that non-scientists have no names for) every year.  Only people who have tremendous self-discipline and an advanced knowledge of where they want to go in life (no to mention substantial smarts) can travel such a path, and even these paragons can only choose one path each. 

Men like Herschel traveled the frontiers of science the way that men like Jim Bowie traveled the frontiers.  They are legends who opened up new realms–but we might not have any place for either one today (or more likely they would both be anonymous consultants battling the Washington beltway to their midlevel office jobs).  

"What the hell kind of simile was that?"

I mention all of this because I love and revere science but, despite trying to keep up, I am increasingly baffled. Scientists express their dismay at the laughable opinions of the layperson, but science stands in danger of becoming a mystery cult assessable only to the ridiculously highly educated.  I don’t have any solutions or suggestions about this.  Unlike some fields of endeavor I could name, science is not complicated because of politics or insidious Wall Street insiders.  It’s complicated because it’s complicated.  Only continuous studying and striving can allow scientists to push back the boundaries of human understanding (even as the rest of us connive to sell insurance and plastic junk to each other). That seemingly precludes brilliant crossovers. Strange visionary outsiders like Herschel no longer contribute their insights and talents, which is a great pity.  

Pictured: Science

I’m sorry I strayed into personal opinion there.  Perhaps some actual scientists can set me straight concerning interdisciplinary methodology within their fields.  In the mean time have some birthday cake and join me in waiting for the next polymath to give us a brilliant discovery which opens up the universe to the rest of us.

Herschel's Reflecting Telescope at Slough

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