Lessons of a Lifetime 1

Tycho Brahe and his famous fake nose

Tycho Brahe and his famous fake nose

I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but UW-Madison science historian David Lindberg gave me the context for a career.

As a science writer, I mostly cover discrete developments in science, the plodding, step-by-step construction (or deconstruction) of knowledge. That immersion in the minutiae of the natural or technological world is an occupational hazard. When the press of work and constant deadline pressure leave little time for reflection and how the pieces add up, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture of science, how it relates to society, how people perceive the world around them, and even how people perceive science.

But thanks to Professor Lindberg, who died this week in Madison at the age of 79, I gained context, an awareness, at least, to step back and contemplate the things I write about and consider them in the bigger narrative of science and human history. It is the 30,000-foot view and easily ranks among the most valuable lessons learned in graduate school.

Teaching large, lecture-style classes, Lindberg was a superb storyteller. The narrative was seamless and rich, taking me and my classmates on a tour of Western scientific thought and practice from antiquity through the Renaissance. We learned about the characters of science, the rock stars of their day: Galileo, of course; Copernicus; Kepler; Brahe, the feudal lord of the Danish island of Hveen and the greatest naked-eye astronomer in history. (I found Brahe particularly relevant and interesting because he pushed technology to the limits and because he was a character. His nose was sliced off in a duel, sparked, some say, by a quarrel over a mathematical formula.)

We learned how the edifice and methodologies of modern science came to be. We saw how new technologies (the telescope) sparked not only scientific discovery but fundamentally changed how humans perceived their place in the cosmos. We learned how people discovered that mathematics and quantitative measurement could reveal truth.

Lindberg was particularly expert on science and its relations with religion. It was revealing that, in Lindberg’s view, Galileo’s real trouble with the church was more a result of his pissing off the papal authorities by casting them as simpletons than his defense of the Copernican system setting the Earth and the other planets in motion about the sun. Galileo was no diplomat. Lindberg conveyed this in engaging detail, reminding us science does not occur in a vacuum. Science is something people do; it is not a simple collection of facts, but a way of looking at the world and is deeply influenced by the humans who do it.

This appreciation helps me see science for what it is: a human creation that is our best bet for understanding nature at its most fundamental level. It also helps me see the baggage of science and how it is subject to the nuances of human societies and human characters through time. For someone who has spent a career writing about science, these are the lessons of a lifetime.

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