Modern science is a newcomer, barely four hundred years old. Though indebted in deep ways to Plato, Aristotle, and Greek natural philosophy, the pioneers of the ‘new philosophy’ called for a decisive break with ancient authority. In 1536, Pierre de La Ramée defended the provocative thesis that “everything Aristotle said is wrong.” Francis Bacon and René Descartes criticized scholarship that remained in thrall to the ancients. This adversarial stance implied a problematic relation to the established order. In spite of Bacon’s efforts to persuade his king to support his fledgling scientific research efforts, King James mockingly compared Bacon’s words with the peace of God that “passeth all understanding.” Though later rulers came to value the powers that science gave them, they recurrently turned against its ever more expensive projects of ‘pure’ research.To render the new philosophy more comprehensible to an audience steeped in classical learning, Bacon often resorted to reinterpretations of ancient myths.He compared science to the Sphinx because each, “being the wonder of the ignorant and unskillful, may be not absurdly called a monster.” His irony implies that this superficial view has its own truth, though it also must be considered within a larger, deeper perspective. Here the concept of depth is crucial, for the essential innovation of modern science has been to disclose the secrets and depths of nature. Though this has become a familiar image, it represents a radical departure from Aristotle’s view that nature is fundamentally open to human understanding, not hidden. Instead, Bacon turned to alternative insights, to Heraclitus’s enigmatic teaching that “nature loves to hide” and to Isaiah’s recognition that “thou art a God that hidest thyself.” We have only begun to estimate the effect on human understanding of this quest for the depths. Bacon envisaged that the new philosopher, as a “skillful Servant of Nature,” would wrestle with Proteus, “the messenger and interpreter of all antiquity and all secrets,” whom he identified as “Matter-the most ancient of things, next to God.” Bacon emphasized that this ordeal of experiment was to be heroic testing, not the torture of a slavish and submissive victim. Bacon also anticipated that the evidence that emerged would be enigmatic, even enciphered. He judged that “the universe to the eye of the human understanding is framed like a labyrinth,” requiring a new kind of interpretation akin to the then emergent art of codebreaking. Bacon did not anticipate the form this decipherment would take-symbolic mathematics though he mused on the unexplored possibilities that lay beyond the mathematics he knew, convinced that the future would far outstrip any anticipation.
Consider the paradoxical demands that Bacon anticipated. On one hand,He guessed that this extraordinary quest would have deep effects on the seekers,penetrating the nature and wellsprings tested their own intensely felt theories,the seekers must be cold, impersonal, testing each theory mercilessly. On the other, they must be filled with ardor, on fire to imagine radically new insights into the depths. Their imaginations must be feverish enough to conjure up ever more daring flights of fancy, but then cold enough to try to annihilate their own creations. This paradox threatens to unravel the seekers’ selves and to paralyze their desires. As a result, their humanity may be hostage to their integrity as ‘scientists’ or ‘physicists.’These names, only coined in the 1830s, replaced the older term ‘natural philosopher,’ which Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday had applied to themselves. Our literary representations of this new breed are similarly recent. Consider the ‘mad’ scientists inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). The original Victor Frankenstein is sensitive and intelligent, deeply affected by the early death of his mother. “The world was to me a secret I desired to divine,” he recalls. “Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture” are his earliest recollections, blending intellectual with passionate response. After a youthful infatuation with alchemy and magic, he encounters the wonders of modern chemistry and is seized by the desire to “explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” His obsessive quest eclipses ordinary human love and even makes him forget his own family. His only offspring is his creature, a monstrous man-child who disappears into inhuman isolation and whose delicate sensibility turns to cruelty as his sufferings transpose Rousseau’s noble savage into a dark key.
Thus far, the mad scientist is a kind of parody of Bacon’s forebodings. Nevertheless, the parodic exaggerations point back to the emotional dilemma that Bacon more subtly discerned when he pointed to wounded seekers such as Oedipus as archetypes of the new philosophers. In Bacon’s account, Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle not despite but because of his wounded, limping feet. And Bacon did not allude to the tragic sequel-incest and parricide-as if his Oedipus has emerged triumphant, blessed by his wound and thereby bestowing blessings. Perhaps Bacon imagined a more positive and heroic version of the ancient story, whose foreboding power he must have known. He went on to depict benign scientist-priests as the hidden rulers of his scientific utopia, the New Atlantis, who conceal even from their wise king scientific discoveries they deem too dangerous.Here again popular imagination follows with its own version of the scientist as magus. Einstein’s wild hair is not the mad scientist’s coiffure but a secular aureole, bespeaking his superhuman intelligence and wisdom. A Jew fleeing race hatred, he defies its threats. He is even (if wrongly) credited with the atomic bomb, but he is saddened and wounded by the use of that bomb. He is an advocate of peace, a rebel against the establishment that reveres him, offering a new vision of human potentiality. His casual dress and dislike of wearing socks reflects his liberation from convention, an anti-style adopted by students since the 1960s. Like all true myths, the scientist-magus lives on, as does the wounded hero: Stephen Hawking’s popular appeal reflects the fascination with a powerful intellect struggling to overcome a crippling physical disability. Besides these exceptional stories, studies show that scientists suffer from illness and disability during childhood far in excess of the general population.
There is a curious parallel in behavioral psychology. Consider Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiments conditioning dogs to expect food after a bell is rung or an electric shock after a buzzer sounds. When both the bell and buzzer sound simultaneously, most dogs exhibit strong signs of anxiety, unsure whether they are to be fed or shocked. However, at that juncture a very few dogs suddenly cease to be conditioned to either stimulus. Under the paradoxical stress, it is as if the scales fall from the dogs’ eyes to reveal bell and buzzer as meaningless constructs. Through their peculiar experience of cognitive dissonance, those few dogs have entered a new relation to ‘reality,’ precisely because they fully experienced its doubleness, if not duplicity. Perhaps they enter into complete canine cynicism and disillusionment about their trainers’ deceitfulness. At least, they are intractable to further conditioning.Like Pavlov’s dogs confronted with the simultaneous sounding of bell and buzzer, scientists subjected to contrary yet superimposed levels of reality may suddenly cease to regard any single level in the way they had been conditioned. They may feel:The crisis comes not from one level but from the deeply felt dissonance between many. If they can withstand the resultant emotional stress, they may experience a sudden realization. What then? Perhaps they will recognize the one, true level of reality, of which all other levels are merely distorted reflections. Perhaps they will turn away in disillusionment, as if such discord mocks all meaning. Or perhaps in the very multiplicity they will recognize a new, dissonant polyphony.