Science as an emotional endeavour

The interaction between the Chairman of ISRO and the Prime Minister of India on losing contact with the lunar lander Vikram, is witnessed by the entire country. Social media did a very positive job this time. I am moved as much as every Indian. This 50 second clip demonstrates something very important. That science is a highly emotional endeavour. The perception that science and technology is a highly intellectual but emotionally ‘dry’ subject is not true. My own experience is also that of intimate attachment to two things in science. One is the attachment with your own concepts, your own thinking, the beauty of scientific logic, the beauty of its way of thinking, the beauty of the mathematics involved. The other is the attachment with co-workers, in my case mostly students at all levels.

The thought that there is beauty in science is not new. Paul Dirac said “I like to play about with equations, just looking for beautiful mathematical relations which may be don’t have any physical meaning at all. Sometimes they do.” So Dirac says beauty was his first obsession with equations. Their usefulness was secondary.

I had a rather uncommon, if not unique, experience of composing music and poetry along with doing science. I can assure you that the two are emotionally the same. I see poetry in scientific concepts and mathematics in poetry. But for some reason people perceive music and poetry as predominantly emotional endeavours and science as a dry intellectual one. Having engaged in both, I know this differentiation just does not exist. Both are equally emotional and equally analytical. A number of mental processes involved in both are quite the same. But we perceive them differently.

I think the perceived difference is mainly because of packaging. Music, poetry and other arts are packaged in an emotionally appealing cover. Science and technology is packaged differently and there is a reason to it.

Emotions play a lead role in the way we perceive new concepts, interpret surprising results, celebrate the so called “success” or get disappointed by the so called “failures”. The reason I put these words within quotes is that they are completely social constructs. There is no success or failure in the intellectual components of science. A so called “failed” experiment also provides new data and uncovers some principles, so it’s a gain for science in any way. Things take the form of success and failures when science becomes business. When it is not a business, science does not know of any failures. The predominant emotions associated with science are curiosity, excitement, passion, awe, attachment, appreciation of beauty, realization, satisfaction and joy. Disappointment or frustration has no place in science.

But this is not the way science institutions, publications and science funding works. In order to get your science funded, you need to pretend that you have been always successful in the past and in the proposed project you have high chances of “succeeding”, whatever it means. In most cases it means nothing. Funding attempts work on the same principles and mind sets as advertising and marketing. Because funding systems work on this unscientific principle, all scientists have to pretend that they are successful. The tragedy of a scientist’s emotional life begins here. Honesty is the foundation of science, but it is extremely difficult to be honest and still get your work funded. The way experiments are perceived, done and results obtained is not always very logical. Often you get something serendipitously. Sometimes you get some result so unexpectedly that you need to change your entire line of thinking. Most often researchers write it as if they always expected this result. Unless you pretend that you derived everything logically, your paper is most unlikely to get published. This hypocrisy is what makes a scientist’s emotional life miserable. Institutionalization, funding and publication are the three organizational elements of science which make the emotional life of a scientist pitiable. As a reaction to this we tend to disown our own emotions and pretend that we are logical intellectual machines. This further leads to more hypocrisy and more pretence in a positive feedback vicious cycle. But this is the reason why we keep on suppressing our emotions.

The reaction of the prime minister of India as well as the common man to the so called failure of Chandrayaan 2 is a glorious exception to all this. We did not end up in a blame game. We did not say “you” have failed. We all said we are with you in all successes and failures. I only hope that what the politicians and laymen of the country understood, is also understood by our agencies that host and fund other sectors of science. Defence and space science has always enjoyed this support. Other branches haven’t. If, in a country, the science funding agencies understand the importance of honesty in science pretty well, nobody can stop the progress of science there. Let the Modi-Sivan exceptional interaction become the rule and the country will progress like anything.

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