When we stop understanding the world

Bernard Meninsky, Sketch of a still life with a bowl of fruit on a flat surface, Date unknown.


Commentary on the recently published book by Benjamín Labatut

The appreciation of science is one of the most important pillars of democratic coexistence. This is due to two basic reasons. The first is instrumental. It is science that paves the way for technological innovations that make it possible to improve the quality of life, whether it is electricity, antibiotics, vaccines, mobility, food, knowledge of the climate system, interactions between the different components of nature or of population studies.

But, regardless of its social utility, science is decisive for democracy for stimulating curiosity, for contesting established truths and for relying on what the different forms of fundamentalist fanaticism have always fought against: doubt and criticism.

Doubt is not iconoclasm, nor is the pretense that any opinion can legitimately challenge what years of painstaking research have achieved. It is doubt that pushes scientists towards what they do not know. But they only advance when, in the expression used by Isaac Newton (referring to Galileo and Copernicus), they rest on the shoulders of giants, that is, when they value existing knowledge and, at the same time, discover insufficiencies in it that their curiosity and your skills will try to overcome.

Scientific criticism is different in nature from that which comes from common sense. Scientific criticism consists of the permanent submission of assumptions, processes and research results to those who are capable, through their specialized knowledge, of finding their weak points. Hence the importance of scientific opinion systems, peer-reviewed journals and what the North American Robert Merton, (1910-2003) one of the greatest names in 20th century sociology, called, in a 1938 text, “scepticism”. organized".

But beyond doubt and criticism, science, especially from the beginning of the 1749th century, is marked by a third element: humility. Until the middle of the 1827th century, scientific activity (especially Newtonian physics) was immersed in the triumphant conviction of a kind of infinite capacity to know the world. No one better than the Frenchman Pierre Simon Laplace (XNUMX-XNUMX) expressed this belief.

“An intellect that, at a given moment, knew all the forces that direct nature and all the positions of all the items of which nature is composed, if this intellect also were vast enough to analyze this information, would understand in a single formula the movements of the largest bodies in the universe and those of the smallest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future, as well as the past, would be present before its eyes”.

The advancement of scientific knowledge overthrew the pride contained in Laplace's phrase. And it comes from Benjamin Labatut, a young Chilean writer, in the book When we stop understanding the world in which science plunges, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, not only in uncertainty (“crushing the hope of all those who had believed in the clockwork universe that Newtonian physics promised”), but also in the evidence that its results could be at the root of the worst attacks on life.

When we stop understanding the world it is not an invitation to despair and dismay, even if some of the most brilliant minds portrayed in Labatut's book (Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg and many others, with fascinating real or fictional stories) have fallen into disarray, as they were amazed by the the results of their own investigations. The expression “we fail to understand the world” brings two fundamental warnings.

The first is portrayed in stories such as that of the German Jew Fritz Haber (1868-1934), who invented a new way of making war, through a gas that, when used in the attack on French and Algerian troops in 1915, in the city of Ypres, Belgium, immediately decimated 1.500 soldiers. Upon returning from the war, he was reproached by Clara Immerwahr (1870-1915), his wife (the first woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry in Germany), for having “perverted science by creating a method to exterminate humans on an industrial scale”.

Haber despised his wife's criticism and the consequences of his attitude were tragic, as the reader will see in one of the many impressive stories that involve Labatut's reflection on science and scientific activity. Labatut's permanent flirtation with the “delirium” of the most important protagonists of contemporary physics does not in any way compromise the rigor with which he approaches his scientific achievements.

The second warning is, in a way, the one that the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) addressed to the young people who listened to him in Munich, in 1919, at the famous conference Science as a vocation. As important as science is, it is incapable of giving us any clue about the most decisive questions of our existence, such as the meaning of life, the meaning of death and guidance on how we should act.

Or, as the night gardener explains, with whom Labatut talks in the final chapter of his book: “it's not just normal people, even scientists don't understand the world anymore…Consider quantum mechanics…It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, but there is not a human soul, living or dead, who really understands it.”

The unknown and the incomprehensible are the main vectors that feed scientific curiosity. The coherence and organization of Newtonian physics were replaced by a growing set of paradoxes, contradictions and doubts that science seeks to know, but which will never cease to be part of the world and of ourselves. The value of science for democratic coexistence cannot overshadow the paradox that the expansion of knowledge always confronts us with our inability to understand the world.

*Ricardo Abramovay is senior professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment at USP. Author, among other books, of Amazon: towards an economy based on the knowledge of nature (Elephant/Third Way).



Benjamin Labatut. When we stop understanding the world. Translation: Paloma Vidal. São Paulo, However, 2022, 176 pages.


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