Monday, February 16, 2004

Human Interest

Bad popularizations of science, and that means most of ‘em, dilute their perfunctory treatment of the science with a large volume of human interest like Metamucil in orange juice and yet fail to identify any substantial connection between the scientist and the science. Some scientists really are interesting human beings—think of the tragic and problematic trickster Richard Feynman, for example—but the connection of their personalities to their discoveries remains largely contingent. One writes about Feynman and not Julius Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, not because these great physicists, who shared a Nobel Prize with Feynman, had less to do with the development of quantum electrodynamics but because Feynman makes an entirely better read. Yet what is original about the sciences is not something that takes place on the human side of the line between the human and inhuman. The Hobbits are all very nice, but they’ve got to leave the Shire to participate in the huge and scary world outside.

The same problem objections that applied against such accounts of science can be made to history in general; for history is, as it were, a popularization of what happened. Events are mapped onto a handful of moral tales—indeed, they are defined as events in the first place because they can be moralized—although the great changes may have owed more to natural occurrences such as climate change than any fault or merit of men. Even people like Mike Davis who have explored the role of fluctuations in El Nino in the downfall of the old regimes in Turkey, India, and China have a hard time escaping the genre conventions of history. It is also true that if it really is possible and useful to think history from an inhuman perspective, one still has to deal with the commercial imperatives. The true explanation of the rise and fall of states may have little or nothing to do with original sin, but the prophetic narrative will continue to sell so long as the potential readers remain animals fascinated by their own ethology.

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