The Scientist as Rebel

There is no such thing as a unique scientific vision, any more than there is a unique poetic vision. Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions. But there is one common element in these visions. The common element is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture, Western or Eastern as the case may be. The vision of science is not specifically Western. It is no more Western than it is Arab or Indian or Japanese or Chinese. Arabs and Indians and Japanese and Chinese had a big share in the development of modern science. And two thousand years earlier, the beginnings of ancient science were as much Babylonian and Egyptian as Greek. One of the central facts about science is that it pays no attention to East and West and North and South and black and yellow and white. It belongs to everybody who is willing to make the effort to learn it. And what is true of science is also true of poetry. Poetry was not invented by Westerners. India has poetry older than Homer. Poetry runs as deep in Arab and Japanese culture as it does in Russian and English. Just because I quote poems in English, it does not follow that the vision of poetry has to be Western. Poetry and science are gifts given to all of humanity.

For the great Arab mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyam, science was a rebellion against the intellectual constraints of Islam, a rebellion which he expressed more directly in his incomparable verses:

And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling cooped we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help,
   —for it
As impotently rolls as you or I.

For the first generations of Japanese scientists in the nineteenth century, science was a rebellion against their traditional culture of feudalism. For the great Indian physicists of this century, Raman, Bose, and Saha, science was a double rebellion, first against English domination and second against the fatalistic ethic of Hinduism. And in the West, too, great scientists from Galileo to Einstein have been rebels. Here is how Einstein himself described the situation:

When I was in the seventh grade at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich, I was summoned by my home-room teacher who expressed the wish that I leave the school. To my remark that I had done nothing amiss, he replied only, “Your mere presence spoils the respect of the class for me.”

Einstein was glad to be helpful to the teacher. He followed the teacher’s advice and dropped out of school at the age of fifteen.

From these and many other examples we see that science is not governed by the rules of Western philosophy or Western methodology. Science is an alliance of free spirits in all cultures rebelling against the local tyranny that each culture imposes on its children. Insofar as I am a scientist, my vision of the universe is not reductionist or anti-reductionist. I have …

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A Matter of Temperament’ October 5, 1995