ISIS seminar 16 April 2002

To Science with Love

How science and scientists can contribute to the sustainability agenda

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

(Seminar on Responsibility and Education in a Risk Society, 16 April, 2002 London, organised by the government-funded Learning and Skills Development Agency, and intended for policy-makers and others responsible for post-16 education.)

How science and scientists can contribute to the sustainability agenda is something very close to my heart. So close that I cannot bear to give a lecture, as I was asked to, on why science and scientists should be socially responsible and responsive to moral concerns, and how we can educate our university students to those ideals.

I've never tried to be a 'good responsible scientist', so there is no point in my telling others how to be one.

I do feel passionately, however, from my own experience as a scientist, that science and scientists can contribute to the sustainability agenda without trying to be good.

Ecologist David Ehrenfeld wrote [1] that the ultimate success of all our efforts to stop ruining nature will depend on a "revision of the way we use the world in our everyday living when we are not thinking about conservation." We cannot change the way we use the world unless we see it in a different light. And when we do, the last thing we will want to do is to ruin it. That's what I want to share with you. I am saying we need to introduce a new kind of science to the university curriculum.

All loves converge to love of nature I was walking on the Berkeley campus, University of California, one balmy afternoon some years ago, with evolutionists David and Marvelee Wake, molecular and cell biologist Richard Strohman, and my husband, bio-mathematician Peter Saunders, when a flurry of butterflies descended on us from the clear blue sky.

A bright orange monarch landed just above my head in the eucalyptus, whose scent pervaded the afternoon air. I reached up, my thumb and forefinger pinching the folded throbbing wings, and instantly became transformed to a child again. (I hasten to add that I freed the captive, and watched it flutter away back into the blue.)

Nothing could have been further from my thoughts than becoming a scientist, or anything at all, as I roamed the fields in search of those objects of my desire, butterflies, alighting on the tall grass, or in the case of dragonflies, hovering in the air within my reach. And when I tired of that, to scramble up the tallest tree, lean back, and dream of infinity.

That was Hong Kong before the fields were paved over with concrete, and skyscrapers sprouted everywhere to blot out the sky and extinguish all traces of my old haunts and their unseen powers that drew me unerringly to them.

I went into science because it was the thing to do for 'bright girls' in the Italian convent school my parents sent me to. But the science was dull. It was years later before my soul was set alight again as an undergraduate, when Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Nobel laureate biochemist remarked, "Life is interposed between two energy levels of an electron". To me, that was sheer poetry.

It launched me on a 30-year odyssey searching for 'the meaning of life'. I fell in love with ideas, with people, and oftentimes the two coincided. Much later, I was to learn that all loves converge to the love of nature. My career consists, above all, in following the tangled, unpredictable paths of love. And it isn't over yet. I am convinced it is this undying, ever deepening love that has carried me through the most difficult times and swept me up to ecstatic heights of the imagination.

I wandered, gypsy-scientist fashion, into many fields of research and enquiry: biochemistry, evolution, developmental biology, rational taxonomy and genetics. At the same time, I imbibed the great books in philosophy, literature and anthropology, and gave myself up to art and poetry. I longed for knowledge I could live by, emotionally and intellectually, that did not fragment my soul. I wanted to weave science and art intimately and seamlessly into my life. I want a science I could love, that does not reduce organisms and people to machines and commodities.

I suppose I am saying we must keep our aesthetic/emotional faculties alive and fully integrated with the intellectual. For how else is it possible to have real understanding, which requires that we feel what the words and concepts signify?

A science of the organic whole

By 1992, I found a 'physics of organisms' that could have all those qualities, and it indeed changed my vision of the world [2]. For that, I have to thank the long string of distinguished scientists who shared their dreams with me [3], from whom I have learned what they never meant to teach, and that, perhaps is the greatest gift of teachers.

Most of all, I have to thank the fruitfly. In the course of more than 20 years, it suffered at my hands and died again and again, in order to teach me the most profound lessons in the science of life. When I finally learned to communicate with it without violence and destruction, the tiny fruitfly larva revealed itself as a symphony of pure colour that never repeat, as life never repeats (see Fig. 1)....

The complete document is now posted on the ISIS website


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