Equipped with only shovels, flashlights,
and a need to know the truth
they dug a tunnel deep, deep underground.
At last … they found the box.
They hoisted it out of the darkness
and let out the facts.
In the clear blue light of day,
the facts were glorious in all their splendor.
from: The Sad Little Fact
written by Jonah Winter
illustrated by Pete Oswald
Schwartz & Wade/Penguin Random House, 2019
I believe in science, but science is not static. Facts change as we learn more about how science affects us and how we affect our world. Our Earth has always been round-ish, and has always, or at least for the last billion or so years, revolved around the sun. But it took brave and intelligent people to show the rest of us those Truths. Even Columbus knew the world was round. Ancient Greek mathematicians had proved that long before Columbus set sail.
It took Galileo’s courage to defy the Church and affirm Copernicus’s Heliocentric Theory describing the pattern of planets and other heavenly bodies’ paths around the sun. That the sun is the center of the universe, and Earth revolves around it, was a cataclysmic change in thinking from Ptolemy who had set the stage over 1,700 years earlier when he declared Earth to be the center of the universe.
It cost Galileo much, including a conviction by the Church of “vehement suspicion of heresy.” Under threat of torture, Galileo expressed sorrow and cursed his errors.
Science is my Tree of Knowledge. This is not the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That one sprouted and grew metaphors in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were supposed to avoid it, but they did not.
The Tree of Knowledge, though, is sturdy and its roots dig deep. Its branches of metaphor grow wide and sheltering. Sometimes new branches sprout, sometimes mere twigs.
Depending on where you look, you may find few branches of Science on that Tree or many. Wikipedia’s four major branches sounded right enough to me. Formal, Natural, Social Sciences, and Applied Sciences, each one includes lots of subheadings. Scientific subdivisions are what you might expect and include Mathematics, Biology, Ecology, Chemistry, Linguistics, Medicine, and Technology. You can think of many, many others.
While not only about Science, the Nobel Prizes are about Truth.
Alfred Nobel was a man of science and a man of the world. Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1833. He lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, from age nine until he was twenty-one. Then he studied Chemistry and Technology in France and the United States.
Although his interest in Medicine can not be disputed, a perusal of his bookcase shows his interest and deep knowledge of literature and poetry. And though it might seem counter-intuitive to think of the inventor of dynamite offering a prize for Peace, his greatest invention was not intended as part of the war machine. Armies usurped its potential.
Nobel left much of his vast fortune to the establishment of a prize, which, as you can imagine, caused great controversy in his family, his scientific community, and the world at large. It took five years to settle the arguments and award the first prize. According to his will, “the interest on [the fund] … is to be distributed annually as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”
The prizes were equally divided into five categories: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature to the most outstanding work in an Idealist Direction, and one to Advance Fellowship among Nations, Abolish or Reduce Standing Armies, and Promote Peace.
Today six Nobel Prizes are awarded, one each in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, Peace, and since 1968, Economic Sciences.
Sometimes the Prizes are shared. Sometimes no prize is awarded in a particular category or another. In that case, the prize money, about $1,000,000.00, is kept for the next year. If no one is judged worthy of the prize in the second year, the money goes back into the general fund.
Since 1901, six hundred and three Nobel Prizes have been awarded. Only twice have people not accepted the award. Jean-Paul Sartre declined the Prize in Literature in 1964. He had consistently refused all honors. In 1973, Le Duc Tho was honored by sharing the Peace Prize with Henry Kissinger for their work negotiating Peace in Viet Nam. Le Duc Tho declined, referring to the situation in Viet Nam at the time. Fighting continued there for two more years.
On October 9, 2020, David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his agency of the United Nations. The award, he said, “turns a global spotlight” on the 690 million hungry people of the world. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/10/1075012
While I believe in the importance of working toward achieving world peace and the pursuit of scientific goals to increase knowledge as well as their usefulness to humankind, a certain Truth can only be described poetically.
John Keats in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” said
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”
On October 8, 2020, Louise Glück was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/louise-gluck Anders Olsson, the chair of the prize-giving committee, praised her “minimalist voice and especially poems that get to the heart of family life.” You can read about her and read a selection of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation’s website (above).
I feel a poem swirling around, calling me. I better try to catch it!
-—stay curious! (and celebrate the Beauty of Truth and
the Truth of Beauty)