Is it Medicine or Art? Or is Science Important and Beautiful?

June 3, 2008

Readers will have noticed that I tend to focus on the issues of real-world impact and applied relevance of drug abuse science on this blog. This focus on public health crops up in my discussions of career issues related to seeking funding for scientific endeavors from the National Institutes of Health. When I talk about science outreach and science communication, well, there I go again.
Well I happened to run across some guy taped criticizing this perspective:

A Scott Hatfield put up this video on YouTube.

It’s interesting. Sure, I seek my funding from the taxpayer to work on problems of health. So heck yes, it is obligatory for me to work on things that have some importance for public health. Likewise, I feel it is critical that I do what I can to explain to the guy on the bar stool next to me (I hate that stereotypical Ivory Tower “plumber” reference this character used) why NIH science is important to all of us who pay for it.
Still, nothing wrong with seeing the beauty of science. The video makes an excellent argument. Much of science is beautiful, uplifting and triumphant. It is good to communicate that too, and obviously the college classroom is one key arena for this discussion.
But we do not need to disdain either goal or motivation to uplift science. It is not necessary to sneer at important, relevant or applied science as if there is something lesser about such motivations or about the resulting bodies of work.

6 Responses to “Is it Medicine or Art? Or is Science Important and Beautiful?”

  1. James F Says:

    Hmm…I have never seen that guy before.


  2. James D Says:

    I’m pretty sure that was a joke, James F.


  3. Becca Says:

    I don’t think it’s worth being a scientist (for me personally, at least) if you can’t be doing something that holds the potential for both the material betterment of the human condition, and the experiential betterment of your own condition.
    I think applications must be considered in deciding what to research- if only because ‘well you know/we all want to change the world/but when you talk about destruction/don’t you know you can count me out’.
    Lab science can be so mundane as to make plumbing glamorous. But it is a worthwhile pursuit because of that moment in seeing everything fall into place when you finally understand something. I don’t know if science is really beautiful per se, but those moments produce a feeling I associate with the actualization of an idealized beauty. Understanding in science feels the same as in the moment when you are painting where suddenly, a line or dot, or a color contrast is *so right* you know it’s exactly what you were looking for- whether or not you could have explained/predicted/envisoned it before it was there, staring back at you from the canvas. Thinking about science, figuring things out, is like that.
    It’s a beautiful process.


  4. James F Says:

    I know, I know, I couldn’t resist playing along!


  5. Obviously, this gentleman doesn’t grasp that scientific messages require proper framing for each audience.
    Yes, I HATE the plumber reference. My plumber is a genius who could smoke me on anything engineering-related. It’s kind of like when your committee member says, “Explain it so your mother could understand.” Well, what if my Mom was a physicist working for Rockwell?
    I’ve met so many scientists that have creative streaks that run throughout their work and outside into what we’d consider art (dance, painting, music, etc.) – I think we all understand the inherent beauty in what each of us do in the lab or field.
    But if you’re not paying for the salaries, supplies, and instrumentation out of your own pocket, you have a responsibility to also be able to explain the significance of your work to the average taxpayer, politician, etc.
    Hence, I concur: important and beautiful.


  6. DuWayne Says:

    Honest to gods, I often feel the exact same way about plumbing and all the other sorts of work I do. It feels great to walk into someone’s home and assure them that the problem you are there to fix is in good hands. It feels even better to actually figure out the problem and fix it. Often times this feels like trying to solve the deep mysteries of the universe, at least it can be as perplexing.
    Case in point was a leak in the basement of a dear client. It was the interaction of three different issues that separately wouldn’t have been a problem. It was the conjunction of all three that caused water in the basement. I felt like a god when I figured it out, remedied the problems and discovered I was dead on after the next heavy rain.
    Not on a par with dealing with substance abuse in society, but immensely satisfying just the same. It feels good when an older women tells you she would have sold her house months ago, if it weren’t for you.


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