Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Varieties of Scientific Experience



by Robert Tracinski

Some years ago, a posthumous collection of Carl Sagan essays were published under the title The Varieties of Scientific Experience. The title was a play on William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience. Despite his popularity among today's atheists, Sagan was more of a pantheist, equating God with the universe, and his essays were an exploration of science as a means of knowing the divine.

I don't know whether these essays are particularly good--when Sagan dabbled in philosophy, the results were decidedly mixed--but there is something about their basic premise that is worth exploring: the idea that scientific discovery is also a spiritual experience. I don't mean that science is just like faith or is a kind of faith, but rather that science has meaning and value on its own terms. It is as profound and important a part of human life as art or religion.

Yet even in our scientific and technological culture, even when "geeks" have become cool and everyone loves science so much they have to use four-letter words to express it, few people learn enough about science to actually do it, and the "scientific experience" is still rarely shared or understood.

This has been brought out recently in some of the reactions to the blockbuster science adventure film The Martian, which does one of the best jobs in recent years of capturing the scientific experience in dramatic form. The movie has been generally well-received by critics and done very well at the box office, so I'm not exactly complaining. It's more that there is a dimension to the film, and the underlying book, that is a crucial part of its appeal and is still widely unappreciated. This cuts across both the negative and the positive reviews.


What made me notice this was Dan Kois in Slate, giving a review that focuses on what he sees as the superiority of the film over the book. He actually goes so far as to describe Andy Weir's original book as "spiritually empty" because it "replaced" character and plot with "scientific ingenuity."


Fans of the novel are likely to furrow their brows into a quizzical expression at this point. The whole point of the novel is that scientific ingenuity is the plot, and Mark Watney's scientific mind is his character. (That, and his offbeat sense of humor.) So it's interesting to figure out how Kois missed that. Here's more from his review.

"As Mark Watney, the novel's astronaut-botanist hero, solves problem after problem--growing potatoes in Mars soil, transforming his urine into rocket fuel--I came to think of The Martian less as a novel in the traditional sense than as an expertly assembled sequence of causes and effects, actions and reactions, hypotheses and conclusions. And though I sometimes got exhausted by the book's exhaustiveness, I also know that people read and enjoy books for lots of different reasons. If you--like the stick figure in the xkcd cartoon [this one]--are interested in a book whose narrative is propelled by thermodynamics, not character, you probably won't mind if the hero is a stick figure too."

The book, he complains, is "heavy on the practical and light on the psychological," and "the movie, for the most part, zips along engagingly at a level similarly close to the surface. There are no long disquisitions on the meaning of it all. Mark Watney is not given a dead-child backstory." Ah, there it is. Science is a superficial and therefore uninteresting practical concern. To be dramatically interesting and meaningful is to be "psychological," which means either vague poetic groping or some heart-tugging personal tragedy. It means: emotion rather than reason. Kois complains:

"Space, to Mark Watney and the book's other characters, isn't vast or unknowable or terrifying or awe-inspiring. Space is merely a series of problems to be solved--different from the problems one faces on Earth due to transmission delay and lack of oxygen, but nonetheless solvable with some math and a little elbow grease."

Well, yes, and that's actually kind of an awesome way of looking at things. It's the way an actual scientist or technological innovator looks at it. But there is a certain mindset that views this as inadequate because it fails to conform to the usual tropes of the humanities.

And notice what redeems the film, in this view: "[Director Ridley] Scott frequently cuts to gorgeous FX shots of a tiny Watney amidst the immensity of the planet on which he's trapped. These moments slow us down and allow us to consider Watney's predicament, and the literally otherworldly place human folly has left him." "Human folly"--in a film that's all about human ingenuity? Oh, I get it. A few landscape shots allow Kois to read into the film his own preferred philosophical theme about mankind's irrationality.

This sort of thing is echoed elsewhere. At Grantland, Alex Pappademus brushes off the film as "The Light Stuff":

"The Martian doesn't treat space as a metaphor. It's not a vast and forbidding Kubrickian void where puny humans tremble in the face of the incomprehensible. It's not even a crucible where characters must confront their tragic Earthly backstories in order to carry on, the way Sandra Bullock does in Gravity. Space is just a problem, to be solved by groups of smart adults armed with duct tape and plastic sheeting and scale models and binders full of ASCII code and dry-erase boards."

Well, um, yeah. And the problem with that would be what, exactly?

In Newsday, Rafer Guzman goes so far as to declare that "this movie has nothing even resembling a plot. Watney's former crewmates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña and others) struggle with guilt over leaving him behind, while NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) seems to be hiding something from his press officer (Kristen Wiig). These notes of mystery, however, are abandoned to make room for even more scientists (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover) who solve even more problems in order to rescue our hero."

This is somewhat literarily ignorant. In my day, every high school student knew that one basic form of plot was "man vs. nature" (in this case, man vs. Mars). We all were required to read "To Build a Fire," a classic in the genre. If trying to figure out how to build a fire when it's colder than 50 below can be a dramatic plot, why can't figuring out how to survive on Mars? But no, a plot has to be about keeping guilty secrets, not solving problems.

So it should be no surprise to find Stephanie Zacharek in The Village Voice declaring, "The Martian is only partly a story about a man in peril; it's mostly a story about men (and a few women) taking control of the uncontrollable. It's confident, swaggering sci-fi, not the despairing kind. That may be why, as elaborate and expensive-looking as The Martian is, it's almost totally lacking in poetry." Because poetry can only be about anguish and alienation, I guess.

Back to Slate--which with one exception seems to be the epicenter for this sort of thing--and we find Rachel Gross lecturing us that "when it comes to how science and scientists actually work, the film falls short."

"In the grand cinematic tradition, it elides the process of science, distilling it into a series of 'aha' moments and 'Eurekas!' In reality, of course, science is a long, stepwise process that rarely comes up with clear solutions; when it does, they're almost always riddled with caveats and qualifications."

A bunch of you just spit out your coffee, because you know there is one area where the folks at Slate have asked us to view science in precisely this way. Projections about the average global temperature 100 years from now are supposed to be so accurate we should reorganize our entire civilization around them, and this science is so thoroughly settled, without "caveats and qualifications," that no skepticism is allowed.

But no matter. The point here is about the spiritual experience of science.

"Consider a key scene in the movie, when a plan to rescue Watney fails. But hark! Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), a disheveled NASA astrophysicist, swiftly comes up with another plan--one involving a slingshot maneuver and some complex equations. The film doesn't explain how Purnell came to this conclusion. It doesn't explain why anybody should believe him.... The film expects us to accept the plan because of our basic faith and trust in science--just as the crew of the Hermes does. 'I've done the math,' Purnell tells an incredulous NASA director. 'Checks out.'"

Actually, Purnell is an "astrodynamicist," a specialty that consists of precisely that: doing the math about the trajectories of spaceships. I understand why the film doesn't go into detail about how Purnell does this math, because it involves concepts most people never learned in school, and watching a guy write down equations is probably not very visually interesting. It could end up a lot like this, which is the most literally accurate depiction I have ever seen of the actual work of theoretical physicists.

But the point here is that having the math check out and produce certainty is a key part of the experience of science. I vividly recall a section in Newton's Principia where he calculates the force that pulls the planets and the moon into their orbits, then by a series of calculations compares this to the force exerted on falling bodies here on earth. He concludes that they are identical and must be the same force. This is the whole "Newton's apple" idea--that the moon and a falling apple are obeying the same laws. It's quite a thrilling moment, and it was all possible because Newton did the math, and it checked out.

That's a great example of the scientific experience: the transformative power of a new idea that integrates many previous discoveries and opens up a whole new perspective on the universe, all grasped through the language and certainty of mathematics.

The kind of scientific experience celebrated in The Martian, both the book and the film, is much less grand in scale but has similar characteristics. It's the experience of understanding the chemical properties and ratios that will allow you synthesize water from rocket fuel. Or figuring out what combination of nutrients is required to make living soil out of the dusty surface of a dead planet. Or being able to calculate the amount of electricity required to charge the battery of your vehicle so you know exactly how many days you have to travel across the Martian surface.

But this is not a method of thinking that is widely taught, experienced, and appreciated, and particularly not by the class of people whose job is to write articles and make art. We're immersed in literary tropes about dark secrets, emotional trauma, psychological navel-gazing, and the foolishness of man--all of which is what we are trained to think of as "culture." Yet despite their actual impact on our lives, science and technology are not really considered part of the culture, which explains why it is so rare to find a novel or film that understands that experience and is able to communicate it.

The gap is expressed in an otherwise good article on the film by Peter Suderman, who writes that "The Martian is a survival story about the triumph of both the human spirit and the rational mind." Both-and? But the rational mind is part of the human spirit, and the most distinctive part.

To be clear, there are a few literary flaws in Andy Weir's book, and I suppose I could see how someone might criticize aspects of the film, though it's indisputably better than most of what's out there right now. What I'm targeting is not so much a negative reaction to the film, but a blindness to the cultural meaning and significance of scientific thinking. The best of the film's positive reviews were the ones that grasped this in some way. The A.V. Club's Mike D'Angelo, for example, hailed The Martian as a "secular equivalent of faith-based inspirational films" and "an unapologetically stirring celebration of our ability, as a species, to solve even the most daunting problems via rational thought, step by step by step."

This echoes the goal put forward by the film's screenwriter, Drew Goddard, an early fan of the book who sold the idea to the studio in these terms: "'Listen: You got to think of this as a religious movie, it's just that the religion is science. It's all about how a man has faith in his beliefs, and he trusts his instincts will help him get through this.' So when you think of it like that, I think that it sort of transcends the nuts and bolts of 'How do you make water?' It becomes a much more spiritual movie."

This is still a bit muddled, seemingly reducing science to a species of religion rather than embracing it on its own terms. (Then again, what are you going to do when you're pitching to studio execs?) But it indicates why so many fans of the book felt that the film really captured what it was about. Goddard understood that scientific thinking is an expression of the human spirit.

I understand that the portrayal of scientific discovery on film and television is always going to be a bit of a hard sell. These are visual media, and it can be difficult to translate intellectual activity into a visually interesting form. Yet there is already a proven audience for this sort of thing. In my review of Andy Weir's book, I mentioned "Junkyard Wars," inspired by the same scene in Apollo 13 that inspired The Martian. There is also the long run of the television series "Mythbusters," which is a tribute to the scientific method applied to just about everything in life. They've also managed to solve that question about making it visually interesting by favoring experiments that involve shooting guns or blowing things up. This has spilled over into the detective fiction genre, which has always been about the exercise of rational problem-solving, with a boomlet of "CSI" style shows about using forensic science to solve crimes (with varying degrees of realism). There is certainly no shortage of examples or subject matter to work with, because we live in a society built upon a massive edifice of scientific and technological discoveries.

So while others are hoping The Martian will "rekindle interest in the space program," I'm hoping it will kindle interest in more books and movies about the varieties of scientific experience.

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