I just returned from a wonderful weekend trip to New Mexico. One of the best things about the 8 hour one-way drive to Jemez Springs (at least for me) now includes listening to podcasts! Among many podcasts, on this trip I listened again (with my wife this time) to “The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma” by Marc Kirschner, The Chair of Systems Biology at Harvard who spoke at the Cambridge Forum on November 30, 2005.

Marc co-authored the book “The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma” with John Gerhart of UC Berkeley. Marc’s lecture is wonderful for several reasons, but one is the accessible language and metaphors he uses. This is information intentionally made intelligible to both scientific scholars and scientific laymen like myself.

As Marc explains in the presentation, Darwin’s theory of evolution always dealt better with improvements in biological functions rather than innovations and diversity. The theory he and John advance uses findings from molecular biology over the past 10 years to explain how evolutionary processes could develop rich diversity and variety in relatively short time-spans. This is something strongly critiqued by the intelligent-design advocates.

One of my major “take-aways” from Marc’s presentation (which lasts about 25 minutes, the rest of the podcast is Q&A from the audience) is that life is so richly diverse, and our understanding of it is still really only in its infancy! I think it is so ridiculous that proponents of intelligent design as well as evolution in the school science curriculum debate speak as if they had absolute, definitive knowledge on the subject of human origins. Whether listening to Marc Kirschner talk about embryonic cell development or University of Chicago Professor Michael Turner talk about dark matter and theoretical cosmology, I am struck by the same thing: Students in our schools need to appreciate and understand how much scientists still DON’T KNOW about our world and universe, and just how many more questions need to be not only answered but also formulated in the first place!!!

I think often in schools, teachers present a view of science that is really misleading: that all the plants and animals have been categorized, that all the major experiments have been performed, and that their main role as students is to memorize the facts of the past primarily so they can pass a test. This is such a non-scientific view. Of course we need to understand the discoveries and achievements of the past so we can stand on the shoulders of those giants and achieve even greater levels of understanding and even invention– but when you listen to these scientists on the cutting edge of discovery, you realize what vast arenas of research remain unexplored! We should be humble rather than arrogant in the face of these research questions. Yes, certainly we have many more names for scientific processes and components, and we have much greater insight into dynamic and complex systems, but that does NOT mean as a race we have “arrived” and know all the answers! We are still searching for answers in a never-ending quest for truth and knowledge. In some cases, we are just learning what questions to ask, and are only beginning to seek answers!

Another scientist I listened to recently who captured this view as well, but in the sphere of physics and engineering, was Nobel prize winner Dr. Carl Wieman in his podcast presentation “Science Education in the 21st Century: Using the Tools of Science to Teach Science.”

Listening to these great scientific minds of our present era speak, one is struck by the observation that the more one knows, the more one seems to comprehend the finite limits of not only one’s own personal knowledge, but the limits of our knowledge as a human race.

It’s an amazingly huge, diverse universe we live in. What a wonderful thing this is! Rather than pretend we have found all the answers and the boring task before our students is to merely memorize the discoveries of the past, we should revel in the excitement of our scientific present day and seek to ignite passionate desires within the hearts of our young people to explore and learn even more in the dynamic knowledge landscape of the 21st century.

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On this day..

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One Response to Maintaining scientific humility

  1. Science Education in the 21st Century

    Science Education in the 21st Century: Using the Tools of Science to Teach Science podcast by Dr. Carl Wieman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. Also received the first NSF Distinguished teaching Scholars award (NSF’s “hi…

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