The quest for pure truth

Melvyn Bragg writes about the excitement of his discovery that science both inspires and teaches
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The Independent Online
ABOUT 10 years ago, it dawned on me that I was missing out on the intellectual excitement of the century. I lived and worked in a world utterly dependent for its comforts and technologies on the discoveries of scientists and yet I neither knew, nor, truthfully, much cared to know, who they were or what they were doing.

My reaction was rather dramatic and 10 years later I have ended up putting together a book called On Giants' Shoulders, which is a brief history of great scientists and their discoveries from Archimedes to DNA. But the conversion was late and it was a damned close-run thing. Yet it ought not to have been. As an ancient Brit in Cumbria in the fifth century BC, I could have been excused for not picking up the messages from Athens. By the time of Galileo - 2,000 years later - word sped from the Italian star into the English poetry of John Donne in a few years. Today, science dominates the headlines of thought. There is no excuse for ignorance anymore.

Dolly is cloned - bringing us intimations of immortality, fears of Frankenstein and visions of world manipulation. Astronomers may be close to dating Big Bang. The human Genome project grows by the month - a new map of our internal world as influential as anything that Mercator and his followers drew for the planet itself in the 16th century.

Now we discover water on the moon, which must make Galileo nod happily in his heaven. Almost 500 years ago he described the shadowy areas of the moon as lakes with the new telescope he had adapted from its inventor, the Dutchman Hans Lippershey. Perhaps the Hubble telescope, when reinforced even further, will see beyond the boundaries of the known universe into the realms of the soul in which Galileo, like Newton and Faraday and many great scientists of the past and a few today, emphatically believe. The relentless, passionate exploration of the brain promises the discovery of consciousness and the definition of memory. Ancient tantalising questions are united with a star-burst of new and astounding facts and discoveries.

It is impossible to be educated today in an advanced society and confess to a lack of knowledge or interest in science. Yet, like others of my generation, I cruised down the river of life for years perfectly content to be wholly ignorant of what is at the core of contemporary thought.

I had pulled out of physics and chemistry before O-level. I was not allowed to take maths in the sixth form, but I saw that as no great sacrifice. The world of real science faded away over the next three decades, reappearing only in science fiction, or lurid science-based films, or in some occasional amazing fact which landed like a small meteorite in the Siberia of my mind. Science seemed to me neither as interesting nor as relevant as the arts.

I never faced up to the fact that one of the reasons I had quit the sciences was because they were difficult. My reaction was to put down science, patronising it as a way of excusing the embarrassing fact that I'd been no good at it. I even accepted the canard that scientists were somehow duller than us artsy folk. It is obvious to me now that scientists know far more about the arts than arts people know about the sciences.

There are still those who are affected enough to say they know nothing about the sciences as if this somehow makes them superior. What it makes them is rather silly, and it puts them at the fag end of that tired old British tradition of intellectual snobbery which considers all knowledge, especially science, as "trade".

Scientists are hurt and disgusted by this reaction for about five minutes before getting on with their work. Their work absorbs them more fully than any other group of people I've ever met.

I was woken up from my non-scientific wonderland by the brilliant general books being written by contemporary scientists, who have decided to break out of their fortresses of jargon. Even those as eminent as Stephen Hawking or Roger Penrose or Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, started to speak a second language. They had their own dialect for each other. For the rest of us they learned and wrote in the Queen's English. The ideas they wrote about were not difficult to understand - nor are most of the ideas from Euclid to Crick and Watson. I cannot and do not expect to follow the detailed proofs written in their dialect. As long as I can keep up with the notions, that is good enough for me.

The snowball of fine popular science writers grew. Steve Jones, Susan Greenfield, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, Stephen J Gould, Lewis Wolport, Ian Stewart, John Gribbin and others began to populate the bookshops. Often to their surprise, they found that there was a hungry public, like myself, eager and grateful for what they served up.

Science has been through a popular phase before. In the time of the Double Helix, and CP Snow's Two Cultures in the 1950s; before that in the 1930s, during the Darwinian debates of the 19th century, and in the age of Newton and Galileo. But this is a phenomenon of our time. It is on a wide scale, and there is something urgent about it. It needs accounting for.

One reason for the increased interest must be the mundane autobiographical explanation I gave of my own conversion. It seems easy to reach out for a word with a religious connotation, and that may be part of an explanation. Science now seems to promise the certainties, and therefore the securities, still available from religion but delivered to fewer people today. As a species, we seem to be programmed to look for answers and meanings. Science today delivers answers by the month. Scientists can put out a great flow of fact to a growing public urgently in search of hand-holds and guidelines.

This conviction that science is a religious substitute may be accelerating towards the millennium. Who knows what pull the number 2,000 is exercising? Is it the moon of numbers, pulling at the tides of thought and forcing them back from oceans of low activity to a high tide of turbulent resolutions?

Science also satisfies our addiction to fear and risk. In On Giants' Shoulders, Sigmund Freud and Poincare are the spokesmen for these two creatures of the mind. Frankenstein is the great figure for both and the monster's penetration of our culture is symptomatic of the fear and the nightmare. Perhaps homo sapiens is a fearful and high-risk species. After all, from Darwin to Dawkins, it is clear that we only made it here by a roll of the dice. Science may give us the edge necessary to survival. It promises both creation and destruction, and has delivered both.

But I believe it is the revival of interest in Big Ideas which is driving more people to read about science. Where do we come from? Where does the Universe come from? How was it made and of what was it made? How might it develop? We asked these questions when we were young, but put them aside as childish things when we grew up. I suspect that we put them aside because we could find no satisfactory answers. Today scientists are unafraid of answers; they train their rockets on the targets of the obvious every day. This is exhilarating.

I was able to pursue my own interest by inviting scientists on to BBC Radio 4's Start the Week. The devoted - and increasing - interest of listeners underlined the fact that many people without a scientific education are determined not to miss the great intellectual stories of the century. The series On Giants' Shoulders was an extension of those conversations. I was trained as a historian, and this was my attempt to find a context, a grid.

The pleasures of learning about scientists over the last two and a half thousands years were immense. It is fascinating to see how "pure" science can lead to a massive onrush of technology, generations or even centuries later. Much of electronics, for instance - the fax, the telephone, television, wireless, gramophone - goes back to Faraday's understanding that there is a force in the ether which can be tapped and then harnessed.

Yet, when Faraday was working in his basement laboratory in Albemarle Street, he was thinking only of the science and the beauty of the idea which was beguiling and obsessing him. Beauty is a word which comes up often among scientists. It is interesting that Keats was one of the few English poets who knew about science - "Beauty is Truth, and Truth Beauty". Perhaps it is because we know that the best scientists are looking for the purest truth that so many more are turning to them today.

Melvyn Bragg's 'On Giants' Shoulders' has just been published by Hodder and Stoughton at pounds 12.99.