Richard P. Grant: beautiful and essential

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.


  1. Posted December 19, 2008 at 9:03 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Better living through chemistry, better living through science? I never particularly liked that argument. Science can make things worse with greater ease than it can make things better.

    I like the idea that scientists posses a life long curiosity into "how stuff works". It makes the tribe of scientists far more inclusive, not restricted to those who's professions permit them to dabble, but including anyone who is curious about the natural world and wishes to explore further. Far better that science is intrinsic and inclusive, than elitist and divisive.

  2. Posted December 19, 2008 at 9:42 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Spot on, Richard. I'm increasingly interested by the broad classifications of responses this site is generating. The functional replies are all well and good, but perhaps the least satisfying, in that they back us into a corner where we forever have to justify science as being 'useful.' Perhaps it should be, but I can't help thinking that line of thought points us inexorably towards 'Why is this useful to me?', which is getting perilously close to children in a classroom asking 'Why is science important?'

    Does the question this project is attempting to answer exist because we encourage it by justifying science in functional terms? Woah. Causal loop, somebody call the Doctor. Not a doctor, The Doctor.

    Then there are the 'better than the alternative' responses, usually holding up some caricature of christianity as the terrible, irrational worldview science frees us from. Well, OK, I can see how we arrive at that, but again, it's not very satisfying. 'This is good because that is bad' may be a valid comparison, but only if the two things are comparable in the first place. Whether that's the case for religion and science is somewhat moot.

    Which leaves us with a third approach, of which yours, here, is the best articulation yet. Science is our expression of our desire to understand the world practically, just as art is our expression of our desire to understand the world emotionally. Funnily enough, there's considerable overlap between the two, which is why 'doing science' is satisfying, emotionally.

    Science is important because it's satisfying. Which leads us to:

    Science is important because it makes us happy.

    Perhaps I should have written this as a contribution rather than a comment.

  3. rpg
    Posted December 19, 2008 at 10:32 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Perhaps you should, Jonathan!

    Although you summed up my rambling pretty nicely, thank you.

    Spot on Katherine. The elitist, divisive aspect is something I've never really got my head around. Maybe I'll ponder that for another blog post over Christmas.

  4. sreekala
    Posted June 25, 2010 at 3:52 AM | Permalink | Reply

    wat u said is just very beauiful,brilliant and perfect must say........
    offcorse science is knwing wat we are and wat we are supposed to be..........

  5. jiendra kumar
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 6:45 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Science is Important in our life

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