Imparting a point of view

Ailsa Craig copy.jpg
William Bell Scott, “Ailsa Craig”

Teaching science and supervising research isn’t just about facts, tools, and techniques. It’s also about getting people to see the world around them in a different way. 

And what a world it is. What a view.

To see below the surface, to know what’s invisible to the naked eye. The air as a vast cloud of gaseous elements, perceptible to our senses only when blown as wind. The water as a soup of particles held together by weak and sliding bonds. The soil as a galaxy teeming with microbes. Every tree, every blade of grass as alive as we are, composed like us of cells all ceaselessly and tirelessly working. All struggling to stay alive, to prosper, to reproduce. Genetic information decoded and made real by ribosomes; the girders, struts and pulleys of the cytoskeleton; the motors and the enzymes and the messengers.

To comprehend the interactions, the fluxes. To understand the movements of things as chemical reactions going in one direction or the other, governed by physical laws. On again, off again, hot again, cold again, fast again, slow again, up again, down again. First order, second order. Order everywhere. No unruly chaos but things moving in predictable patterns along concentration gradients, activation landscapes, and electrical currents.

 And then the energies, and the forces. To perceive those things and those movements and those interactions as energy transitions, to sense chemical energy being converted into kinetic energy into potential energy into elastic energy into thermal energy and back again. Potential wells, mass and acceleration, diffusion and random walks.

This isn’t a hallucination. This is how things are. This is the dance of physical laws and atoms and molecules and salts and rocks and membranes and cells and organisms that doesn’t just go on around us but actually is us, is everything, is the universe. The planets moving and the stars glowing and the asteroids tumbling vacantly in the ether, all described by the same body of equations.

This, truly, is what it means to be a scientist. To have that second sight, to sense, sometimes only fleetingly, this other world that’s all around us but eludes our normal sense of perception. To be able to dive into and through the appearance of things. And to train other scientists, to train them properly, is to impart this second sight, to gift the means to visualise a world that lies beyond our senses and often our intuitions. To make them able to switch perspective and see the world as it really is – but in a way that will always defy the eyes that we evolved to see matter at a scale that seemed appropriate.

Aldous Huxley famously ingested mescaline in order to gain an altered vision of the world around him. His account took as its title a phrase from Blake, who might just as well have been articulating the scientific eye when he wrote:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

The chinks of the cavern, and the richer and brighter world beyond. Darwin, as well and as always, was right. There is grandeur in this view of life. And this is what it means to be a scientist – to see the world in this way. And to impart that vision, that extra sight, is what teaching and mentoring is all about.

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