Richard P. Grant is a molecular cell biochemist pretending to be a structural biologist. He writes fiction under the pseudonym ‘rpg’ and can be found changing the world at Nature Network
When people think about science they often frame answers to the question—Why is it important?—in very stark, utilitarian terms. Science, people claim, is important because it makes our lives better: it gives us aeroplanes and dishwashers and space flight and computers. It gives us the antibiotics that undoubtedly saved my life two years ago and a fighting chance against cancer.
It teaches us how to think critically, to weigh evidence and hypotheses, to determine what is true and what is merely imagined. To tell us what “works” and what is wishful thinking.
And these are good reasons, noble reasons, and when we, as scientists try to persuade various agencies to give us money for our research, they are reasons we will play on, reasons we use as tools. Understanding mechanisms: how this protein does that thing will help us cure cancer, we say; or develop an AIDS vaccine; or cure hunger in Africa; or save the panda.
But there’s more to it than that. Science is not just important for what it does for us practically, or even philosophically.
When I was five or six, I was walking with my parents along some Suffolk byroads. I looked up at the pylons as they marched across across the countryside. ‘Mam,’ I said, ‘how does the electricity “get into the wires?”’. Just a few weeks ago my youngest daughter paused with a spoon of breakfast cereal halfway to her mouth and said ‘How do we get water?’ These are good questions, and children ask them without fear of the answer. They want to know “how stuff works”. It seems to be genetically programmed, but as we grow older we lose that inquisitiveness—or have it beaten out of us—and miss out on the emotional engagement that comes from finding out about the world.
Science is important because, just as much as literature, or art, or music, it teaches us to be human. It’s part of us, part of who we are.
Science is as necessary as art. Darwin is as important as Dali; Copernicus as Beethoven. Science is “who we are”, beautiful and essential.