The Hedonism of Science: a Lesson From the Ancients

In the first century B.C., Lucretius wrote an epic poem, hundreds of pages and six books long, titled “De Rerum Natura,” or “On the Nature of Things.” Using the same meter scheme as Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey, Lucretius delves into an exhaustive exploration of subjects in science, including atomism, disease, and meteorology. While today we might balk if our science textbooks were written in dactylic hexameter, or described cellular respiration lovingly with chiasmus, alliteration, enjambment and other poetic devices, Lucretius’ poem would not have been considered too lush for its subject at the time he wrote it. That’s because neither the Romans nor the Greeks isolated science from the other subjects; instead, philosophers, politicians, and early scientists contended in the same intellectual discourse with the common goal of explaining and relating to the world we live in. Since then, science has diverged from art, philosophy, and literature. The scientific method requires a “scientific” approach to investigation and hinges on objectivity of thought, rather than the often ornate and presumptuous subjectivity of the toga-wearing ancients. This is good. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to read a chapter about cellular respiration in verse. Even still, I respect the way Lucretius treated his scientific exploration with a hedonistic but humbled awe. It’s an approach that I believe will continue to benefit the manner in which we use and relate to science.

Lucretius was one of the Epicureans, a group of thinkers who believed humans ought to seek pleasure and happiness not just by enjoying the fruits of life, but also by studying it. And so Lucretius’ science wasn’t just an intellectual endeavor, but something that delighted him and offered a unique and transcendental understanding of the world’s beauty. That’s why I thought immediately of Lucretius when I saw the work of Louie Schwartzberg. Schwartzberg’s compilation of animal pollinator-flower interactions reveals the incredible efficacy of “beauty and seduction” as an evolutionary force. His work, vivid and painstakingly composed, is on the surface a kind of eye-candy. But when Schwartzberg reminds us of the context of his film — 50 million years of coevolution — we understand the depth of the seamless beauty we see, from the vibrancy of wriggling plants to the deft swoop of a pollinator bat. His work offers an almost gushy view of a simply necessary ecological process, but in so doing, offers viewers a chance to connect and align nature’s beauty with its relentless practicality. Without considering human sensibilities in his work, specifically our interest in beauty and seduction, Schwartzberg could not have achieved this. The effect, for example, would have been very different if Schwartzberg just told us that “the process of coevolution that gave rise to pollination was very complex and took a very long time.” Like bees to a flower, natural beauty draws us into a more engaging relationship with science that deepens our understanding of how we may use it to understand the world.

I believe we’re returning to an age more like Lucretius’, in which the humanities and science see greater intersection, if for no other reason than the emergence of new technology. With Schwartzberg it was high definition, slow-motion photography that presented such a unique perspective on nature. In the work of Alexander Tsiaras, MRI technology offers a detailed look at fetal development. Tsiaras’ imaging certainly progresses our understanding of human anatomy, but what Tsiaras can’t seem to get over is the beauty of his work — “[it] just makes you marvel,” he remarks, a little lost for words. Like an Epicurean, its Tsiaras’ blissful disbelief of the complexity within the human body that drives his quest for answers. According to Tsiaras, the data he collected has the mark of “divinity,” and it’s this divine beauty that lights up Tsiaras’ eyes and incites him to investigate more. Maybe it’s the technology that brings out these and other researchers’ adventurous spirits, but humans have sought to penetrate the natural world for thousands of years through exploration and Romantic movements. Both of these researchers show how technology can channel all that awe, romance, and curiosity — far too latent in an urbanized society– through the scientific proxy, and they demonstrate clearly how science, for all its utility, will continue to serve as a tool with which we can study and love the beautiful complexity of the natural world.

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